Man, is this ever a lot of Ockeghem. Gaudeamus' The Ockeghem Collection includes all of the surviving masses and most of the motets, along with a chanson and a couple of attributed works thrown in for good measure. What would be left of Ockeghem's work list afterward is a motet or two, a motley assemblage of chansons, and a few more attributions, perhaps enough to fill up two CDs, if that. Naturally, not all of these pieces have been recorded at one time; these performances, by the Clerks' Group under Edward Wickham, were issued over about seven ASV/Gaudeamus CDs from 1994 to 2001. The ordering of the program, however, is completely different from any of the earlier releases, which contained some pieces not by Ockeghem and a few additional Ockeghem chansons not included here. Therefore, this isn't a case of revitalizing old stock through changing the cover and putting it out again; The Ockeghem Collection represents a rethinking of the whole of the Clerks' Group recorded output of the composer.
In musical history, Johannes Ockeghem stands between the renaissance poles of Guillaume Dufay and Josquin des Prez, though in contemporary sources, he is often cited as being the top composer of the day, and he may have been a close contemporary of Dufay that lived into very old age. His music is noted for its separateness from other sacred music of the time; the tricks of the trade -- parodies, cantus firmus, imitation, and other devices used by renaissance composers -- sink so far into Ockeghem's music that they become invisible. In most cases, they are there, and one can deduce them from looking at the music on the page. However, the music does not sound as it looks; when sung, it takes on a magical characteristic all its own. The late musicologist Edward Lowinsky once took a whole lot of flack from his colleagues in suggesting that Ockeghem had developed a "secret chromatic art." While scholars remain divided as to whether Ockeghem's art is specifically chromatic in nature, there is no doubt that whatever makes his music tick is something that yet remains a "secret." Ockeghem's three-part writing is matchless, but what makes it so is a mystery.
The Clerks' Group does a terrific job not only of interpreting Ockeghem's music as it appears on the page, but in finding the center of each piece in terms of divining the proper pace of one piece versus the next and developing a sound that still blends but in which individual voices are still apparent. This is significant as Ockeghem's music, though superficially calm and devotional; is quite complex, even in three-part textures; and often things are going on in the background that one doesn't catch the first or even second time through. All of the singing is transparent, well intoned, clear-eyed, dedicated, and pious; for such a large swath of Ockeghem, these performances are ideal. Ockeghem's music, however, is best taken in relatively small doses, say a mass and a motet per sitting; this is not background music, and time seems to stop when Ockeghem gets going, so one will want to pay attention. Although The Ockeghem Collection is only five discs -- about six hours and 20 minutes of listening -- and parts of it will seem eternal, obtaining it should be regarded as a commitment. One cannot praise this fine set highly enough, and with so much extraordinary music here, it would be a pity for a copy of this to sit, untouched, gathering dust on the shelf.