Ockeghem Requiem & Missa Fors Seulement
At the risk of repeating myself, 1997 is also Ockeghem year, and a fitting time for The Clerks’ Group to wind up the first leg of their survey of his Masses. They do so in great style – I was about to write “on a high note”, but in fact this recording offers some of the most stupendous bass-singing you’re likely to hear on CD.
Top billing goes to the Requiem, Ockeghem’s most widely recorded work and perhaps his most enigmatic piece, stylistically very wide-ranging and diverse. Aesthetic judgement is hard to pass, since it may well be incomplete; but the surviving movements contain some of Ockeghem’s most arresting inspirations. This is the first version of any quality to feature sopranos on the top lines. That sets it apart from the finest rival recordings, those by The Hilliard Ensemble and (despite maddening quirks) Ensemble Organum. Incidentally, no recording of the Requiem is uniformly excellent; on the other hand, the words of the Mass for the dead conjure up many associations, and The Clerks deserve a place alongside the Hilliards and Organum for the verve and imagination with which they respond to the work’s interpretative challenges. For me, the Tract, with its soaring duos culminating in the thrilling four-voice question “Ubi est Deus tuus” (“Where is your God”), has always been the litmus test of any performance of this work: The Hilliards’ “Ubi est Deus” is solemn and ethereal, Organum’s hushed and awe-struck; The Clerks sound almost defiant. Whether or not this is theologically appropriate I am in no position to say; musically, it is thrilling. If I am less sure about the opening antiphonal movements, that may be to do with their scoring, for which countertenors seem to me the more logical choice; and the mixture of voices does seem to get in the way of a clear sense of alternation between full and reduced textures. (Incidentally, liturgical propriety seems to call for a repeat of the first section of the Gradual; Organum are the only group to observe this.) Now, I must admit to having a soft spot for The Hilliards’ recording, but after repeating listening, The Clerks are at least as impressive. The quality of the fillers on both recordings (The Hilliards have Ockeghem’s
That brings me to the works built on Ockeghem’s song Fors seulement (which includes Antoine Brumel’s Du tout plongiet). It is difficult to decide which to praise more highly: the pieces themselves, which are incomparable, or the singing, which to my mind represents The Clerks’ finest achievement to date. Fors seulement inspired a flowering of astonishing pieces scored for very low voices (initiated, it appears, by the composer himself): in both the Mass and in Du tout plongiet, the basses descend to written low Cs. In addition, these pieces are exceptionally richly scored (the Mass and the La Rue song are five-voice works), creating polyphony as dense and as dark as a strong Trappist ale – and every bit as heady! The Clerks achieve almost miraculous linear definition here, without losing an iota of the music’s sensuous appeal: quite a feat, given the low pitch and awesome contrapuntal complexity involved. In this connection, the contribution of the basses (Edward Wickham, Jonathan Arnold and Robert Macdonald) deserves special mention. Du tout plongiet is another high-point (so to speak), with Stephen Harrold shining on the top line – as do Carys Lane and Rebecca Outram on those of La Rue. Enough superlatives: this is a major achievement.'