Cinquecento

Regnart: Missa Super Oeniades Nymphae

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Performers continue to explore the Renaissance choral repertory beyond the canon handed down by German musicology, and here the Viennese vocal sextet Cinquecento (which puts two singers on each of the top two lines of this four-voice music) has brought to light a major find. Jacob Regnart is compared in the booklet material to his sixteenth century contemporary Orlando di Lasso, and in general outlines the comparison holds -- Regnart, a Fleming in service of the Habsburg monarchy, had the same kind of international style Lassus did, writing Latin polyphony, German songs, and more. The a cappella music on this disc makes clear, however, that Regnart was no second-rate Lassus. He did not create vivid, madrigalian depictions of sacred texts the way Lassus did, but in place of those he forged a unique language that used old-style imitative polyphony as part of a larger expressive palette -- something like the way Mozart and Haydn used the old-fashioned fugue.

The central work on the disc is a mass, the Missa Super Oeniades Nymphae, probably a parody mass based on a secular piece now lost -- each section begins with material seemingly drawn from a preexisting source. More interesting are the small details. The music ebbs and flows in passages where full, dense polyphony is set against antiophonal sections involving pairs or trios of voices. Combined with extremely subtle shadings of vertical sonority, the result is music that reacts sensitively to the text of the mass without recourse to pictorialism. Sample the Incarnatus and Crucifixus sections of the Credo, track 4: hovering mode mixtures -- mode transformations, really -- attend the incarnation of Christ, and then a thickening of texture, not a rising line, depict his crucifixion and resurrection. The various motets that fill out the program are similarly vivid. Inviolata intacta et casta es Maria, track 11, discards the limpid calm familiar from Josquin's famous setting of the same text in favor of rippling, cascading polyphony -- Regnart rejoices in Mary's presence rather than sketching a portrait of her. The male singers of Cinquecento maintain absolute precision and an unflagging warmth throughout a demanding program (they sound a bit like the Hilliard Ensemble without the slightly extreme edge), and one closes the disc case enthusiastic about the prospect of hearing more -- both from Cinquecento and from the oeuvre of Jacob Regnart.

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