Scattered Ashes: Josquin’s Miserere and the Savonarolan Legacy
To celebrate their 25th anniversary, vocal ensemble Magnificat directed by Philip Cave have created a programme of Renaissance polyphonic works inspired by Girolamo Savonarola’s (1452-98) famous meditations written while awaiting execution. One contemplates Psalm 50, Miserere mei, Deus, and another Psalm 30, In te, Domine, speravi. Savonarola was a Dominican friar burnt at the stake for his reformist preaching, his ashes scattered in a river to prevent supporters preserving them as relics.
This disc opens with Josquin’s extraordinarily vast setting of the Miserere. Weighing in at just over 17 minutes, it is a motet of grandiose proportions characterised by repetition of the words ‘Miserere mei, Deus’ (Have mercy on me, God). This functions like a refrain with five voices framing what is mostly a two- or three-voiced texture. Added to this, Cave employs his full complement of singers for each refrain and uses just solo voices in between, further emphasising the variations of texture. The overall tempo is quite slow if compared, say, to La Chapelle Royale under Philippe Herreweghe (Harmonia Mundi, 4/87), but solo voices allow for a suppleness of phrasing that enhances forward momentum, often with arrestingly beautiful segues between textures such as at ‘et impii ad te convertentur’ (‘and the unholy will turn back to you’), where a solo soprano soars over the dying echo of Savonarola’s repeated plea.
In Lhéritier’s more dense polyphonic setting of In te, Domine, speravi, Magnificat’s velvety sound is at its most luxurious. This sonorous ensemble, combined with Cave’s unhurried tempi, create a wonderfully melancholic sound world. Their interpretations of the post-Josquin generation of continental composers, Gombert and Clemens specifically, are among the finest on disc.
The programme ends with Byrd’s Infelix ego. It’s a tender performance; phrases roll pleasingly forwards under Cave’s direction and his interpretation nudges Byrd closer to his continental counterparts. My own preference lies with a more demonstrative madrigalian approach such as The Cardinall’s Musick under Andrew Carwood (Hyperion, 4/10), leading to a dramatic final plea ‘Miserere mei, Deus’ scorching the texture with emphatic chords. Here, instead, Cave strikes a prayerful note to end his programme.