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Music Review

Renaissance music provides sense of renewal

By Matthew Guerrieri
Globe Correspondent / February 10, 2009
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By the 15th century, European composers were actual international celebrities. When the Flemish doyen Johannes Ockeghem died in 1497, poet Jean Molinet wrote a "Déploration" in his memory that also name-dropped the day's other musical stars: Loyset Compère, Pierre de la Rue, Antoine Brumel, and Josquin des Prez. Last weekend, Schola Cantorum and its director, Frederick Jodry, ingeniously programmed all those composers together, a Renaissance Bandstand in Ockeghem's tribute.

Compère's "O bone Jesu" opened the concert with gentle warmth; his "Ave Maria" interpolates a litany of saints, set in waves of imitation, each plea rippling through the chorus like a game of sacred telephone. In La Rue's lamenting "Absolon fili mi" the counterpoint leads to far-flung keys, an inward portrayal of grief's dislocation. In contrast, Brumel's "Laudate Dominum," conflating two Lord-praising psalms, sounded like a big-budget studio release; Brumel's close-formation canons, antiphonal alternations, and bright sonic palette were gratifying in their sturdy, straightforward gloss.

Josquin's music stood out; where his contemporaries focused on horizontal polyphony, Josquin found expressive potential in vertical harmony. In "Planxit autem David," harmonic shifts are timed to the dramatic intent; Molinet's "Déploration" is fairly extravagant in its wordplay and dense rhyming, but Josquin's setting finds subtle emotional range within an overall austerity.

Ockeghem's own "Requiem," the earliest surviving musical setting of that service, closed out the evening. Possibly incomplete, it's also musically unconventional. Ockeghem, a contrapuntal master, nonetheless spends much of the piece in lockstep, parallel harmonies, a deliberately archaic touch. Long stretches feature just the upper voices, or the lower, leaving the rest of the choir idle. A setting of the 42d Psalm is almost avant-garde in its deconstruction of the text into individual sounds and words.

Romantic speculation theorizes that Ockeghem wrote the "Requiem" for himself, toward the end of his life. Perhaps not; but the experimentalism creates an unusually personal feel, a stream-of-consciousness glimpse into an individual composer's thoughts. The performance complemented that quality. The 10 voices were enough to create a grand sound, but such that individual timbres could still be picked out of the texture. While not perfect - harmonies occasionally slipped their moorings - the singing communicated a lovely human sense of music, not trapped in the past, but being made now, in the present. Like the promise to Abraham so prominently featured in the requiem, music is renewed from generation to generation.

SCHOLA CANTORUM OF BOSTON Frederick Jodry, director

At: The Church of St. John the Evangelist, Saturday

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