Philippe de Monte: Missa Ultimi miei sospiri

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On this Hyperion disc, all-European singing group Cinquecento takes on one of the great forgotten figures of the renaissance -- and there are many, though none so unjustly as he -- Philippe de Monte. Composer of more than 1,200 madrigals, Monte didn't make much of a showing in sacred music until he joined the court of Maximilian II in 1567, where he remained -- to some extent against his will -- for the next 35 years. While Monte's sacred output doesn't quite match up to his madrigals in sheer numbers, it is still a considerable amount of music -- he composed some 40 settings of the mass alone -- that has been heretofore little explored. Combined with Cinquecento's naturally flowing, thoughtful, and inspired interpretations of these pieces, Hyperion's Missa Ultimi miei Sospiri is probably the best handle in terms of meeting Monte halfway.

In his time, Monte was a friend to both William Byrd and Orlandus Lassus, and, as a composer, considered in the same class with Palestrina. His reputation quickly sank in the wake of his death in 1603; some sources cite the departure of the Habsburg Court for Prague in 1583 removed Monte just far enough from the cultural centers of Europe for his fame to slip into the cracks. However, it seems like common sense that someone who had published 34 books of madrigals -- more than any renaissance composer -- would be remembered for a long time no matter where he lived. Cinquecento has done Monte the ultimate service here, through fine performances and dedicated advocacy, in making clear precisely why the names of Lassus and Palestrina went into the history books and not that of Monte: changing trends.

Included along with the Monte works on this program is a motet by Philippe Verdelot, Ultima miei Sospiri. Considered cutting edge when first published in 1541, Ultima miei Sospiri would have been considered a golden oldie by the time Monte used it as the basis of his Missa Ultima miei Sospiri, the featured work on this disc, likely in the 1580s. The style of Verdelot's motet informs not only the mass that is based on it, but all of the music heard on this disc. Monte employs a solid, yet conservative style that has little of the shrewd cosmopolitanism of Lassus or the free-floating transparency of Palestrina. However, there are surprises -- the dour, discordant harmonies of Monte's Miserere; the scattered entrances of Ad te levavi; or even just the sheer beauty of the setting of Asperges me, Domine. Monte's sacred music does repay repeated listening, and some of it is complex enough that taking a given piece for another spin around the block seems almost a requirement. Cinquecento's singing is fabulous throughout, as is the sound, and while its hard to say what role Hyperion's Missa Ultimi miei Sospiri might play in bringing Philippe de Monte back into the fold of top-ranking renaissance composers, if this can't do it, who knows what will.

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