Golden Age of the European Polyphony (The)
Assembling an anthology such as this one is no easy matter: which composers‚ what works? In collaboration with the late Jean Salkin‚ Laudantes’ director Guy Janssens has compiled 11 CDs (and as many hours’ worth of music). Most feature a single composer‚ each represented by a Mass and a number of motets. So we find Machaut’s Mass and Dufay’s Se la face ay pale cycle; Josquin’s L’homme armé sexti toni‚ Palestrina’s Ecce ego Johannes and Victoria’s O quam gloriosum (along with a few of those composers’ best known motets); Tallis’s Lamentations‚ excerpts from the three Byrd Masses and the Gradualia. Other choices are less obvious‚ but representative none the less: Ockeghem’s Caput (and three of the motets)‚ Morales’ Requiem and Gombert’s Mass Beati omnes (the latter two‚ as far as I am aware‚ not otherwise available). The whole approach and the individual choices clearly signal the set’s presumed market‚ that of the curious novice wishing to dip a toe into the vast ocean of early polyphony.
As a ‘starter pack’‚ this does seem to press all the right buttons: the CDROM substitutes for what might have been a rather bulky booklet (the set as a whole is attractively and economically presented)‚ and contains a reasonably detailed commentary to each disc‚ as well as a glossary of some of the more technical terms. The superbudget price rounds off the equation‚ suggesting a Naxoslike enthusiasm for opening the music up to a wide audience.
I implied earlier that the set seems geared to a certain ‘listenership’ – a cautious way of saying that the qualities just noted will strike a more seasoned early music audience rather differently. After all‚ most of these works already exist in multiple performances of very high‚ or even superlative‚ quality. If the Josquin Mass selected had been Malheur me bat – one of a brace of his Masses still unavailable on CD – one would instantly have formed a rather different impression of the whole. The choice of motet excerpts makes the same point: Lassus’s Penitential Psalms exist in very fine complete recordings; so do his Lagrime di San Pietro‚ or Palestrina’s Canticum canticorum. From this more specialised standpoint‚ the selection may seem rather conservative‚ and in places‚ piecemeal. Josquin’s great contemporaries‚ for instance‚ barely get a look in (Isaac and La Rue get one song each)‚ and there is no secular music at all before the turn of the 16th century. So unless you’re a passionate fan of Gombert and must have that Mass (this isn’t irony: I rate Gombert very highly)‚ the more specialised listener will probably regard this as a stockingfiller‚ and (I suggest) enjoy it on that basis.
I have refrained from mentioning the performances so far‚ since the question of the target audience necessarily influences one’s judgement. My ‘curious novices’ will be looking for a way into the music‚ and will (one hopes) branch out and expand their listening from there. They will find the recordings of Josquin and Palestrina particularly well executed‚ the textures and sonorities clear and limpid. Much of the Tallis‚ Byrd‚ and Victoria is fine‚ too (barring a few disappointments: Tallis’s Lamentations‚ for instance)‚ and the final disc of the set‚ entirely given over to songs‚ is perhaps the most enjoyable of all‚ for all its extreme eclecticism. Clearly the singers (soloists‚ rather than the mixed‚ mediumsized choir that usually prevails) are freer to enact the words through the music‚ and they respond spontaneously with individuality and a sense of fun. Surprisingly for a project from a Belgian ensemble‚ however‚ the disc devoted to Lassus is the one major disappointment of the later period: the songs in particular are poorly done‚ which is surprising‚ given the success of the song disc just mentioned. But the real difficulties affect the earlier period: some ‘cooking’ of lines is necessary for the choir to cope with Dufay’s Mass (the tenor part in particular)‚ much of the point of Ockeghem’s Caput setting is lost by transposing the piece upwards‚ and Machaut is the least well served of all: slow and forced‚ Laudantes’ performance of the Mass clearly demonstrates that the composer must have intended either one or at most two singers on each part. Yet another reason‚ then‚ for specialists to take this set in the spirit in which it is offered‚ and make up their minds accordingly.
In justice to the project one ought to mention the CDROM. Beyond the obvious drawback of disadvantaging those with no access to a computer‚ it makes little use of the opportunities presented by the medium. There is a sample track from each CD‚ but this is surely superfluous. Far better would have been illustrations from the iconography of the period: choirs singing‚ a few of the composers‚ some partbooks or choirbooks… but there are none to speak of. Finally‚ Salkin’s texts are informative and certainly engaging‚ but not always as accurate as one would like; and there is a tendentiously proBelgian slant to some statements. (Dufay was almost certainly born in Cambrai‚ and cannot therefore be considered Belgian!) Yet the charm of these idiosyncratic touches rubs off on the set as a whole. A mixed response‚ then; but how could it be otherwise?