It is gratifying that the increasing flow of recordings of Ockeghem’s Masses shows no sign of abating in the aftermath of the recent quincentenary; and that The Clerks’ Group’s continuing series has not deterred other ensembles from joining in. The Mi-Mi Mass has a distinguished pedigree on CD, but this recording offers a refreshingly different approach. Rebecca Stewart has thought a great deal about the work and proposes a mystical, symbolic interpretation of its modal structure. Mystical, too, is Cappella Pratensis’s performance under her direction: tempos are drawn-out (the whole Mass lasts 36 minutes, against 27 with The Hilliard Ensemble and 31 with The Clerks), and the singing is characterized by expressive swells on long notes that sound very different from the much straighter delivery adopted by both English groups. If the tempos seem almost too extreme in the longer-texted movements (some listeners may find my ‘almost’ a bit rich: the Credo lasts nearly 12 minutes), in the melismatic movements especially the purposeful shaping of lines makes for deeply involving listening. This also means that dissonances that quickly pass by in other performances are fully savoured here. The ensemble is recognizably Flemish in tone, but sings at a consistently low dynamic: the effect is not so much muted as inward (the whole of the Agnus Dei, and the second one in particular, illustrates this magically), which gives the women’s voices an intriguing graininess. Whether one agrees with Stewart’s overt characterization of Mi-Mi as ‘Ockeghem’s Crucifixion mass’, her contemplative approach has nothing of the ‘hands-off’, underinterpreted blandness too often associated with the term, and for that reason alone I find this recording utterly compelling.
There are some bizarre decisions regarding sharpened notes, particularly those on final chords, most audibly in the Kyrie and in an otherwise solid rendition of Intemerata Dei mater; to my mind these are compensated by the incorporation of several very sensible emendations in Jaap van Benthem’s recent edition, which are presented here for the first time and conclusively vindicated: reason enough to investigate this new recording even if you have either or both of the others. Finally, the chant selections have a life and character utterly foreign to the English manner of plainsong singing; that too is refreshing. It might be easy to point out occasional roughnesses of intonation and delivery, but for those who worry that a certain depressing uniformity is taking hold of this repertory, Stewart’s approach is not so much a breath of fresh air as a much-needed hit of oxygen. Don’t pass it by.'