26 Jun 2010

Willaert: Missa mente tota; Motets

Originally written for musicalcriticism.com
26 June 2010

Given the astounding volume of high quality sacred polyphony that survives from the sixteenth century, it is not surprising that major figures like Adrian Willaert (1490-1562) are still somewhat under-represented on disc. Hyperion are, as ever, doing much to improve this situation and their latest release by the ensemble Cinquecento is a valuable addition to the catalogues.

Alongside Nicolas Gombert (c.1495 – c.1560) and Jacobus Clemens (c.1510 – 1556) Willaert formed the core of what has become known as the post-Josquin school. But this title can be both helpful and misleading. Indeed Willaert was a pupil and disciple of Josquin des Prez, but to refer to him only as 'post-Josquin' is to imply that composers in the first half of the sixteenth century were merely treading water whilst they waited for the music of Orlando di Lasso. Yet Willaert, at least, is lucky enough to be guaranteed a certain stability of position due to his famous pupil, the theorist Gioseffo Zarlino who referred to him as il eccelentissimo Adriano.

So what it is about Willaert that inspired Zarlino to describe him so? Willaert is part of what Howard Mayer Brown calls The High Renaissance, an incredibly fertile period when several key composers strove to perfect the Mass and Motet genres. Interlocking phrases, freely composed, were fused with the older style of writing over a cantus firmus which in turn still incorporated forms such as the canon in order to pursue a perfect marriage of poetic form and music. Willaert was, as Richard Taruskin writes, 'the great mid-century stylist'. Apart from embracing the triad as a consonance, Willaert will be remembered for his smooth compositional technique that gives a truly seamless texture which, in turn, allowed him to incorporate dissonance discreetly into his music.

This ingenious programme by Cinquecento gives a wonderful portrait of the composer. Firstly they sing Josquin's motet 'Mente tota' (just four voices), followed by Willaert's mass setting based on this model. It is remarkable music since not only does each movement contain a double canon, but the whole mass is built towards a climactic 'Agnus Dei'. The selection of motets that follow contain two particularly interesting choices. O iubar, nostrae specimen salutis is a vast ten-minute Hymn for the Holy Shroud, possibly the famous Turin Shroud that had been damaged just ten years before the publication of this work and, freshly restored by the Poor Clare nuns, would have been touring Italy about this time. The other is Quid non ebrietas, notorious in academic circles for containing a musical puzzle. It's a setting of a simple poem about drunkenness but the music is scored in such a way that without the correct understanding of musica ficta the tenor and cantus parts end E against D. The Cantus part is unambiguous but since the tenor part gradually accrues 'flats' through ficta it ends up on E double-flat. Roger Wibberley, whose edition is recorded here, believes this is a demonstration of Syntonic tuning and a particularly good exploration of this remarkable music can be found in his paper in Music Theory Online

Singing this music, Quid non ebrietas in particular, requires some impressive skills not only of tuning but also of ensemble, it's Willaert at his most quirky. Here, Cincequento offer one of the best performances that I've ever heard of this piece; their rich tone and vocal agility allows them to move with supreme confidence through the twists of the music especially at 'ad proelia trudit inertem' (encourages the unarmed into battle).

Elsewhere I am less convinced by the finer points of their ensemble. The 'osanna' about 3 minutes into track 5 is noticeably less polished, and there is a rather disappointing start to Cipriano de Rore's joyful Concordes adhibite animos. As so often in this music, it boils down to vowel-sounds. Cincequento are six singers from five countries and, as they say, this structure harks back to the imperial chapel choirs of the sixteenth century but it does mean that subtle vowel-inflections obscure the tuning. Concordes against Concardes is always going to sound messy; and thus it ever was perhaps?

What is truly impressive about this recording is Cincequento's magical interpretation of Willaert's style. The seamless polyphonic texture for which he was so famous is reflected in their rich and covered sound. It's quite indulgent compared to the crisp Oxbridge style that usually prevails in this music, and that's one of the reasons I find it so exciting. If you haven't already heard this ensemble then I highly recommend you seek them out.

Cinquecento (Hyperion CDA67749)

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