Lovely voices give life to lofty repertory of early music
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.