Cappella Pratensis / Joshua Rifkin

Vivat Leo! Music for a Medici Pope

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This release marks the return of American conductor Joshua Rifkin to the world of Renaissance music performance after a pause of several decades. Rifkin has revolutionized the performance of composers from Bach to Scott Joplin, but here his presentation and performances, with the eight-voice all-male Dutch group Cappella Pratensis, draw on and synthesize recent insights of others. The ensemble is small (maybe too small), the music representative of a specific repertoire, and the booklet devoted to in-depth explorations of how an Italian audience of the early 16th century might have heard these pieces. The works on the album are unified by their inclusion in the so-called Medici Codex, a manuscript given as a wedding present to the nephew of Giovanni de' Medici, who did not let his status as Pope Leo X interfere with his sybaritic lifestyle. The good news was that Leo appreciated music and was even skilled enough to write five-part polyphony on his own; he or his compilers sought out the best music they could find, and the manuscript is a good snapshot of informed taste around 1515. All the pieces are Latin motets except for Josquin's French-language Nymphes des bois, his famous lament on the death of Ockeghem. By this time Josquin had returned to his Wallonian homeland, but his works were already famous enough to be included as greatest hits. Of the other pieces, some intersected with contemporary events: Adrian Willaert's Virgo gloriosa Christi is a prayer to the patron saint of childbirth, and may have been composed to mark the arrival of Leo's nephew's pregnant bride, Princess Madeleine de la Tour d'Auvergne, in Italy. Other works refer to Leo himself, and Rifkin's notes are models of their kind in explaining how a listener of the day would have noted the composer's elegance in accomplishing the task at hand. The music was neither as abstract as was long thought, not as deeply and specifically coded as some would say. It is curious, however, that Rifkin does not discuss the question of why a piece extolling the valor of Leo's great rival, Francis I of France (Jean Mouton's Exalta regine Galliae), should have been included in Leo's own collection. Perhaps he wants the listener to speculate on this, and the album as a whole would serve that goal well. It leaves the listener understanding the Renaissance sacred a cappella repertory better than he or she did before playing it. Strongly recommended. All notes and texts are in English, French, German, and Dutch.

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