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Jacques ARCADELT (c.1507- 1568)
Sacred works: Music for the Cappella Sistina
Estote fortes in bello [5.18]
Missa - Ave Regina caelorum [30.48]
Istorum est enim regnum caelorum/Isti sunt sancti [6.04]
Domine non secundum peccata nostra [5.54]
Pater Noster [4.40]
Lamentationes Jeremiae - Res Sordes eius [7.10]
O Pulcherrima mulierum [3.31]
Josquin Capella/Meinolf Brüser
rec. Knechtsteden Basilica, 6 March 2010
CPO 777 763-2 [64.12]

A year or so ago my wife and I were standing on Juliet’s balcony in Verona, a romantic spot. Below us there assembled a mixed choir which started to sing one of the most famous madrigals of the 16th century, Il bianco e dolce cigno by Jacques Arcadelt. Apparently all Italians know this music, almost from memory, as do I, so I joined in, much to the delight of all those in the little courtyard below. There is more to Arcadelt than this or any of his over one hundred other published madrigals. His church music helped to lay the foundations for Palestrina and his contemporaries yet has been sadly neglected.
 
Arcadelt was born in the Low Countries and in the mid-1530s became a member of the papal choir. His sacred works are well worth investigating. In the case of this new CPO disc we hear from a German group, the Josquin Capella under founder conductor Meinolf Brüser. I’m ashamed to say they’re new to me.
 
There are certain characteristics of the secular style that imbue the sacred works, for example Arcadelt’s tendency towards the major mode as in Il bianco. This is the case with the Pater Noster recorded here from a manuscript, like much of his music found in the Cappella Sistina. It was unusual for composers to set these words polyphonically. Arcadelt slightly emphasises the interest in the top line and on an obvious melody, his cadences are similar to the ones heard in the madrigals. It has an ease of grace and clarity which seems so typical of his style although its use of subtle canon and imitation is easily overlooked.
 
The disc opens with a combative Michaelmas Motet Estate fortes in bello which shows another angle to Arcadelt’s contrapuntal skills. In its complex six-part writing it shows some intriguing textures with those three interweaving tenor lines and imaginative ways of dividing up the voices into various groupings.
 
The text of the two-stanza motetIstorum est enim regnum caelorum is taken from the Magnificat Antiphon for the Feast of the Martyrs, “The Kingdom of Heaven belongs to these who despised the life of the world”. If, as has been said both in text books and by Meinolf Brüser in his notes, Arcadelt forms a bridge between Josquin and Palestrina then the close canonic writing here in the lower voices at the fifth harks back a generation. The simpler contrapuntal style and the eschewing of the old modes as heard in the Pater Noster points forward to the new generation. In all of these pieces the Josquin Capella, for all their beautiful singing and fine intonation, never attempt to bring out character through use of the text and consonants or in varying the dynamic shading and colouring. The music floats along with indistinct diction as an untroubled stream in summer. Surely these pieces especially as they are ‘motets’ could be more vibrant, moving and alive. Perhaps the acoustic of the Knechsteden Basilica, a huge and imposing Romanesque Abbey, doesn’t help. This criticism does not really apply to the last work on the disc O Pulcherrima mulierum (“Come down into my garden my beloved/you are exceedingly beautiful”) that sets a compiled text from the wonderfully erotic Song of Songs. Arcadelt seems to be thinking in a suitably madrigalian style and the Josquin Capella respond in a more impassioned and emotional manner.
 
The other two pieces are the Ash Wednesday motet Domine non secundum peccata nostrum, an intriguing piece beginning with a solo voice and ending in a rich five-part texture and the Lamentiones Jeremiae, a selected few lines set for the dark sounds of men only, beautifully rendered here.
 
The main focus of the CD is a large-scale Mass mostly in five parts which the rich Agnus dei moves into six. This is a parody mass using an Ave Regina Caelorum setting by Andreas de Silva which uses the plainchant melody. Arcadelt knew de Silva in Rome. There was surely time to record this unfamiliar de Silva motet alongside the mass. The motet dates from c.1519. Arcadelt points towards Palestrina in the balance and structure of the lines and again in the melodic writing and choice of the major mode. Some sections may remind you of 15th century composers: for example the use of sixths in the Christe Eleison. If my talk of melody and lines has meant anything then I should add the word ‘lyrical’ because that is exactly what this beautiful Mass is even in a long text like the Credo. Arcadelt just has a natural way with melody and I should think that this work is enormously gratifying to sing. It is certainly a mellifluous piece and is given a warm performance.
 
A mostly pleasing disc offering a sound introduction to an aspect of this interesting composer which hasn’t as yet had much of an opportunity to be discovered.
 
Gary Higginson 

 

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