OCKEGHEM. SØRENSEN Requiem
As the earliest surviving example of a famous genre, a certain mystique attaches to Ockeghem’s Requiem, which now boasts an impressive discography. But there’s no getting around the fact (and I’ve tried to) that it is a strange work, its distinct sections very disparate stylistically. So much so that Margaret Bent argues in her note for the new recording by Cappella Pratensis that it may be a composite work, perhaps drawing for some of its sections on the setting by Ockeghem’s predecessor Dufay. That said, there are moments of invention that one struggles to associate with anyone else and which Ockeghem himself rarely surpassed: the duos in the Gradual and Tract, or the four-voice sections of the Offertory. No wonder it has attracted so many recordings and, as in Ars Nova Copenhagen’s offering, responses from modern composers.
Cappella Pratensis’s fine new all-male reading most resembles the Hilliard Ensemble’s of 25 years ago. Although on the surface there is little about it to change one’s view of the work, in quite a few places the choice of musica ficta offers stimulating alternatives (and ususally very convincing ones – try the consecutive fifths in the Introit) to those of other recordings. Tempi are leisurely; and, though the voices have perhaps not the individuality to be found in some other ensembles, the sense of a collective of singers in the service of the music grows with each hearing and lends integrity to a work which, for all carefully controlled intensity, is a study in exercising restraint.
Cappella Pratensis pair Ockeghem with La Rue, whose Requiem is another of the more striking early settings. Here things aren’t quite so focused, although it may be that La Rue’s setting suffers in comparison with Ockeghem’s, just as Brumel’s suffered in comparison with La Rue’s on The Clerks’ recording. Perversely mercurial though it is, I still prefer the Ensemble Clément Janequin’s recording.
Paul Hillier was the Hilliard’s director when they recorded Ockeghem’s Requiem and his view of the work has hardly changed, though the ensemble he now leads is very different. So, rather than reinvent the wheel, Hillier intersperses its movements (never intended to be heard continuously) with pieces by the Danish composer Bent Sørensen that draw on or extend the Requiem theme. Because of Sørensen’s smooth transitions from plainchant-inspired duos to resonant, richly dissonant harmony, the dialogue with Ockeghem (who alternates differently scored sections in much the same way) is very nicely managed. True, my preference in the latter is for an all-male ensemble, but the trans-historical polyphonic project proposed here is more than sufficient compensation. Those who know their polyphony, by the way, will enjoy Sørensen’s splicing and looping together of Sanctus settings by Monteverdi and Ockeghem. Well, it made me smile.