Ockeghem Masses

Author: 
Fabrice Fitch

Ockeghem Masses

  • Missa "Caput"
  • Missa ma maistresse
  • Ma maistresse et ma plus grant amye
  • A solis ortus cardine
  • O sidus Hispaniae
  • Gaude Maria
  • Sarum Chant, Venit ad Petrum (John 13: 6-9)

After a hiatus of over a year, The Clerks’ Group return to Ockeghem with two strongly contrasted Masses. That on Ma maistresse, of which only the first two movements are extant, was the only one of Ockeghem’s Masses yet unavailable on CD. It ranks as one of his most mellifluous creations, whose sheer loveliness The Clerks convey seemingly effortlessly. The old LP version with Pomerium Musices under Alexander Blachly (Nonesuch, 4/78 – nla) had considerable charm and (in addition to the sensuous quality just mentioned) a rugged energy that is smoothed over here, but the brightness of Wickham’s sopranos is employed to better effect than elsewhere in this series (so far as Ockeghem is concerned, at any rate). The contrast with the Caput Mass could hardly be greater: to quote the booklet-note, ‘as a traditional tenor the Caput melisma is awkward, but as the bass part it is downright obtuse’. The way in which normal-sounding progressions in the upper voice are subverted by the bass is as fascinating now as it must have been for Ockeghem’s listeners (try the concluding ‘cadence’ of the first part of the Credo). These long bass notes colour the entire work and lend it a brooding quality and a quirky darkness that is deeply involving. This is why I am puzzled by Wickham’s sporadic inclusion of the sopranos, whose timbre subtly alters the balance of the male voices whenever they are present. It is as though two different instruments were used in alternation to score the same melodic part, with all the implications that carries with regard to phrasing and breathing. For the most part this is done with The Clerks’ customary elegance (barring the odd patchy moment, for instance the beginning of the Credo), but the premise itself leaves me unconvinced, especially considering how well The Clerks sound in the Kyrie, where the sopranos are absent.
Another puzzle concerns the question of which edition is used: this performance seems to be a conflation of two different editions that present markedly different views of the work. There is no hint of this in the recording information, which pays scant regard to the hard work and deeply held convictions of the musicologists responsible. Still, this is the first recording of the Caput Mass to give a just impression of its beauty and power; indeed, the three anonymous works, though finely wrought and sensitively performed, pale in comparison. The only real disappointment is the song, Ma maistresse, marred by solecisms of pronunciation, and whose two sections are unbalanced in temporal terms. On the plus side, there is a fine interpretation of the plainsong antiphon from which the Caput plainsong is drawn, with a typically imaginative touch at the moment when the melisma itself begins.'

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