Flemish composer Adrian Willaert -- who served as maestro di capella at the Cathedral of San Marco in Venice from 1527 until his death in 1562 -- contributed so much to the Italian renaissance; while he wasn't the first to develop the Venetian polychoral style, its propagation in the mid-sixteenth century may well be laid at his feet. Willaert helped introduce the forms of canzona and ricercare, which greatly aided the growth of instrumental music in the years to come. The nearly overarching interest in chromaticism among Italian composers in the late renaissance can be traced to Willaert's door. Nevertheless, toss a dart into a crowd of music scholars and chances are you won't manage to hit one that has much of an opinion about Willaert's work or his music -- it is seldom recorded and CDs devoted to Willaert alone are rare. On their own, these aspects make Oehms Classics' Adrian Willaert: Musica Nova -- featuring the talents of expert vocal ensemble Singer Pur -- special, valuable, and significant for purposes of study and filling a major hole in the renaissance repertoire. But beyond that, it is a fine listening experience as well.
As a publication, Musica Nova appeared in 1559 under the auspices of Alfonso d'Este, the title being somewhat ironic as Willaert's music wasn't "new," but had been composed some two decades prior. This collection of 27 motets and 25 madrigals -- all but one set to texts from Petrarch's Canzoniere -- was previously held as Musica reservata by the court of Alfonso in Ferrara; the urging of musician and editor Francesco Viola finally brought it into print. In the meantime, some of Willaert's students and others who had contact with this music in its unpublished state had created direct imitations of some pieces and published them, much to the annoyance of Viola, who sought, in part, to set the record straight by seeing Musica Nova published. Singer Pur elects in this two-disc Oehms Classics set to perform the 25 madrigals alone, not mixing in any sacred motets and thus preserving an integral part of Willaert's cycle. Tempi tend to remain similar from piece to piece, so listeners may wish to experience a few pieces at a time in order to avoid blending them together in one's ears. But there are considerable awards; one can hear -- from the perspective of the 1540s -- the music of the future; the aching and unstable chromaticism of Ove ch'i posi gli occhi points to the progressive Neapolitan school of Gesualdo and de Macque. If one can hear Io mi rivolgo as if transposed to brass choir in one's mind, then Willaert's connection to the Gabrielis will be evident; indeed, Andrea Gabrieli was likely a student of Willaert and Giovanni Gabrieli served as organist at San Marco beginning some 22 years after Willaert died.
Certainly it was a tribute in Willaert's own time that his two-decades-old compositions could successfully be proffered as "new music"; to listeners adept in understanding trends in the late Italian renaissance, Willaert is like the missing link from Josquin to the rest of what's familiar about the sixteenth century. Singer Pur's performances are well balanced, in tune, and, at times, expressive; Oehms Classics recording -- made by Bayerischer Rundfunk -- is good, though sometimes baritone notes tend to hang on in the ambience; whether this is due to hall resonance or the use of artificial reverb is unclear, as Oehms Classics does not elect to list the venue of recording. Nevertheless, it is a very minor distraction.