Lovely voices give life to lofty reper­tory of early mu­sic

The Washington Post Sunday - - ART - CD RE­VIEWS — Charles T. Downey style@wash­post.com — Charles T. Downey

New early-mu­sic en­sem­bles ap­pear on the scene with alarm­ing fre­quency. One of the new­est and most ex­cit­ing is Beauty Farm, a sex­tet of male singers from Ger­many and Bel­gium based in the cul­tural cen­ter at the for­mer Carthu­sian monastery of Mauer­bach, Aus­tria. The group, formed in 2014 by mem­bers of lead­ing early-mu­sic vo­cal en­sem­bles, is de­voted to the rar­efied reper­tory of Fran­coFlem­ish polyphony of the Re­nais­sance. Re­nais­sance mu­sic is a spe­cial­ized reper­tory; thus this most com­plex con­tra­pun­tal mu­sic is a niche within a niche.

The group has re­leased two new sets this year, be­gin­ning with the sec­ond vol­ume of its col­lec­tion de­voted to the motets of Ni­co­las Gombert (c. 14951560). A stu­dent of Josquin des Prez, Gombert wrote in a style that rep­re­sents the height of poly­phonic com­plex­ity. Al­though he was ex­tremely pro­lific, com­pos­ing steadily ex­cept when he was pun­ished for sex­ual con­tact with a boy in the em­peror’s ser­vice, much of his mu­sic re­mains un­ex­plored, and th­ese discs in­clude many pieces be­ing recorded for the first time. Not only be­cause of this, they rank with the best ex­am­ples of the Gombert discog­ra­phy by such groups as the Hil­liard En­sem­ble, Tal­lis Schol­ars and Stile An­tico.

The 17 Latin motets on th­ese two discs rep­re­sent only about one-tenth of the motets Gombert pro­duced, and that doesn’t in­clude his set­tings of the Mass, Mag­ni­fi­cat and sec­u­lar songs. All of the motets here are writ­ten for five or six voices, mak­ing the tex­ture thicker than mod­ern ears are gen­er­ally ac­cus­tomed to hear­ing. The disc was recorded in the Mauer­bach monastery, where this sort of polyphony would have been far too or­nate for the Carthu­sian monks, and the ex­tremely live acous­tic clothes the voices in a long ring of sound. In the mo­ments of si­lence be­fore and after some tracks, you can hear birds singing.

The en­sem­ble has to pitch th­ese pieces quite low so that the top part isn’t out of range for the coun­tertenor, Bart Uvyn. Even so, he is pushed into un­pleas­ant sounds here and there, and the bass, Joachim Höch­bauer, has to de­scend far into the base­ment, as low as C# be­low the staff. Only one odd mo­ment oc­curs, at the pause be­tween the two halves of “Da pacem Domine,” a jar­ring shift of tonal­ity that draws at­ten­tion to the jux­ta­po­si­tion of two dif­fer­ent trans­po­si­tions in this piece (the prima pars end­ing on F and the se­cunda pars on E).

For its most re­cent disc, re­leased in Fe­bru­ary, Beauty Farm went back to the Masses of Jo­hannes Ock­eghem (c. 14101497). Prob­a­bly the teacher of Josquin des Prez, Ock­eghem takes us back from more con­ven­tional im­i­ta­tive coun­ter­part to the com­plex world of pro­la­tion canons and other mu­si­cal puz­zles. Both masses in­cluded here, how­ever, be­lie Ock­eghem’s rep­u­ta­tion as a for­bid­ding con­tra­pun­tist. They have been recorded be­fore, but Beauty Farm has made beau­ti­ful ver­sions.

The “Missa L’homme armé,” for four male voices, is one of many set­tings of the Latin Mass based on this fa­mous French tune, and one of the most in­ge­nious. Ock­eghem quotes the tune in var­i­ous voice parts through­out the work, and this record­ing al­lows the fa­mil­iar parts of the tune to pop out of the over­all tex­ture. Be­cause the part car­ry­ing the can­tus fir­mus moves lower in pitch through trans­po­si­tion, the “Agnus Dei” move­ment sits quite low, which flat­ters the group’s at­trac­tive lower voices. That ex­ten­sion of the lower range, schol­ars agree, is one of the main in­no­va­tions of Ock­eghem’s style.

The “Missa quinti toni,” set in a bright modal area, is an at­trac­tive set­ting of the Mass for just three voices. Here Ock­eghem, seem­ingly writ­ing for three con­fi­dent singers with wide vo­cal ranges, keeps the tex­ture uni­form and varies the men­su­ra­tion, or rhyth­mic or­ga­ni­za­tion, al­most not at all. The fo­cus, then, is on the beauty of the voices, each more or less iso­lated in its own unique range, with­out the pro­lif­er­a­tion of voices heard later in Gombert.

JO­HANNES OCK­EGHEM MASSES Beauty Farm Fra. Bernardo.

NI­CHOLAS GOMBERT MOTETS, VOL. 2 Beauty Farm Fra. Bernardo.

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