Ockeghem Choral Works
The Clerks’ Group began with Ockeghem in the mid-1990s and went on to record the whole of his sacred output, most of which (only excluding the Masses on Caput and Ma maistresse) is included on the set. It remains an impressive achievement, for which lovers of polyphony remain indebted to Edward Wickham’s singers; but it’s perhaps easier now to appraise it more critically. At their best, the performances are authoritative; the Missa Ecce ancilla is one of the most accomplished (a couple of transcription errors notwithstanding), and I was particularly taken with the fragmentary five-voice Missa Sine nomine and the Missa Cuiusvis toni, works whose effectiveness tended to elude me in the past: the Clerks smooth over Cuiusvis toni’s potentially bitty longer movements very effectively.
Overall, I still feel that the relative tempi chosen for certain mensurations don’t always do justice to the proportions of some movements (the Gloria of Missa Mi-mi, for instance), while some Masses are taken at such a clip that the individual details are skated over, and the cumulative weight of events is lost sight of (try the conclusion of the Credo of L’homme armé, or most of Quinti toni). It’s not that such briskness is inappropriate in itself (the inauthentic three-voice Missa Primi toni shows how engagingly the Clerks can bring it off); rather, it may not be so well suited to Ockeghem. On the credit side are the motets, the Missa Au travail suis and the Requiem – all are typical of the composer at his best, and find the Clerks on fine form. But why are three works of very questionable ascription (the Missa Primi toni and the motets Gaude Maria and Celeste beneficium) included at the expense of the two remaining Masses that are unquestionably authentic? Both are available on one of the original CDs.
Against such past glories, the group’s latest offering is something of a disappointment. Wickham’s nose for effective programming has not deserted him: “In memoria” demonstrates that music of remembrance needn’t be lugubrious. The fragmentary Missa Requiem eternam by a mid-15th-century anonymous Englishman is typical of the outgoing style of this idiom. More affecting is Josquin’s eloquent Absolve Domine, a possible memorial to his colleague, Obrecht. Another shrewd decision is the added fourth voice in Josquin’s Que vous madame/In pace. Four pieces are taken from previous recordings, but in those newly made for this CD, the new line-up of singers, which includes two equally matched mezzo sopranos, does not seem as secure technically as those of past years. The rhythmic elasticity typical of the group at its best is all too often lacking, and the vibrato that obtrudes at certain points of the mezzos’ lines is neither well judged nor sufficiently controlled. A mixed bag, then, but with some worthwhile curiosities.