Pierre de la Rue: Incessament

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The German a cappella men's vocal quintet Amarcord, perhaps the latest avatar of the choral spirit of the great old city of Leipzig, has recorded an intriguing variety of music. They've done Billy Joel songs, chant, contemporary choral music, a speculative exegesis on the chorale tune Nun komm der Heiden Heiland, and now this rather wonky but very beautiful performance of Pierre de la Rue's Missa quinque vocum super Incessament, a five-part mass based on a chanson called Incessament mon povre coeur lamente (Incessantly my poor heart laments). The booklet is detailed (it gives you a good idea of why the composer would have wanted to write a mass with these particular resonances), and the presentation is authentic, with the mass cycle separated by chants for the mass Proper sections -- the parts of the mass that change from day to day during the liturgical year. La Rue's original chanson is given, as is a contrafactum motet from later on that became popular in Protestant lands. All this detail is relevant, but the average listener can also leave it aside and luxuriate in purely musical values. Amarcord's neatest trick is to make you forget that you're listening to five singers performing a piece of choral music. The blend is so perfect, and the sound of the individual singers is so pure, that it's just not an issue (the mass is written for a low vocal range). This ensemble of former members of the St. Thomas Boys' Choir in Leipzig, a group active at the church where Bach once was boss, has worked together for years. It has won awards from organizations devoted to the art of a cappella vocals, and if you are a member of a group of singers that performs unaccompanied, whether it be a church choir or a barbershop quartet, you owe it to yourself to hear the artistry of these singers. The mass has a musically complex aspect: its two lowest lines are written in canon, and la Rue plays with the canon in the upper lines, alternately disguising it and setting it off. The polyphonic structure is crystal clear in this performance, which would be delightful to hear live in a church with the right acoustics. Established masters of the art of a cappella singing should be looking over their shoulders at this talented young German group and its innovative programming.

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