Hyperion's Music from the Court of Maximilian II is the recording debut of Vienna-based Renaissance singing group Cinquecento, whose six members are natives of five different European countries. Cinquecento made quite a splash on its first European concert tour in 2005 and is serving a residency at the cathedral of St. Rochus and Sebastian in Vienna, singing a new polyphonic mass setting every week. The group is certainly in good voice on this disc, recorded in the Dominikanerkirche in Retz in 2006, a friendly acoustic for an international group of musicians that blends as though no borders separate them so long as they raise their voices in song.
The program might be effectively, if clumsily, subtitled "Franco-Flemish composers in the service of the Habsburg Empire," specifically Maximilian II of Austria, whose family chapel employed the musicians represented here in the 1540s and 1550s. The center of attention is short-lived composer Jacobus Vaet, whose high-minded style and effective text painting dominates this program. Vaet certainly is the main attraction here -- even the Lassus piece included (also written for Maximilian II, though a little later than the rest) -- pales in comparison to the showing Vaet makes in the five pieces allotted to him. Videns Dominus is a meltingly beautiful pictorialization of the raising of Lazarus from the dead -- you can literally see the event in your mind's eye as the music unfolds, and some might see it in the garb of an old Dutch master painting. Vaet's motet Continuo lacrimas (Continuous Tears) commemorates the untimely passing of Vaet's esteemed contemporary Clemens non Papa, and adds a further clue to the theory that Clemens did not die a natural death. This piece was recorded excellently well within the context of Clemens by Doug Fullington and the Tudor Choir -- the idea of the same Jacobus Vaet work being recorded by expert choirs twice in as many years is almost more goodwill than the mind can grasp.
However, some of the other works on this program try one's patience as much as they stretch the literature's horizons. Antonius Galli's Missa Ascendetis post filium is appropriate for inclusion as it is based on a motet of Vaet, also included here in its original form. However, it is a very long mass setting, longer than all of Vaet's compositions in this program put together by nearly 10 minutes. The mass certainly gets off to a lovely start, but its five movements are very similar in design and after awhile it becomes rather monotonous. The amusing six-voice Discessu of Pieter Maessens, with its subject based on Maximilian's musical name, given as F-E-E-E-F-C, certainly results in some weird-sounding octave displacements on all those Es. Even annotator Stephen Rice described its effect as "ungainly," and one wonders if we are not scraping a little too hard at the late Renaissance trough with our trowel. Nevertheless, while not perfect, Cinquecento's recording debut is certainly an auspicious one that is loaded with merit, and fans of late Renaissance vocal music will not be able to resist it for long.