Isaac seems to have written more mass cycles than any other composer
of the Renaissance. He was esteemed as highly as any other of his
contemporaries - by both musicians and patrons, actual and potential.
Unhappily, his secular music has scarcely received the attention it
undoubtedly deserves. Only an incomplete and out of date edition exists:
that of Johannes Wolf (Vienna) from over a century ago.
Of the astonishingly small number - fewer than half a dozen! - of
CDs devoted exclusively to Isaac only a couple contain any of his
secular material. Now along comes this pleasing, well-conceived and
nicely-executed newcomer from the dozen-strong German group, Les Flamboyants,
which was founded by director and flautist Michael Form in 1997. It
contains two dozen or so short secular pieces by Isaac supplemented
by a handful of complementary works by contemporaries, the most notable
being Le serviteur hault guerdonne by Dufay - also one of the
CD's longest pieces.
Indeed, variation is a feature of the CD. Variation between sung and
textless, between instrumental and vocal grouping/combination, between
miniature and ensemble, and between reflective and more outgoing pieces.
The collection also alternates between the six composers. Isaac's
music has enough substance and interest not to need to be presented
as a potpourri. The same is true of Busnoys and of the much
less well known Jacques Barbireau and of Juan de Urrede. The listener
comes away with a sense of roundness in Isaac's and the others' musical
intentions. It seems as though Isaac could turn his hand to anything.
Perhaps to illustrate that competence, dexterity and flexibility,
Form has chosen to place a sequence of ten compositions at the heart
of this CD. This builds, subtly, miraculously, surreptitiously, almost,
on a well known chanson melody. These numbers combine that melody
with formulae and methods used in antiphonal responses and invocations
to the Gregorian Litany of the Saints. The distribution is five-fold:
the original, two tenors (primus, secundus), then two
more freely composed accompanying vocal lines.
The achievement of Les Flamboyants is, among other things, to have
produced musically pleasing, compelling and beautiful wholes which
seem as effortless and convincing as they in fact represent tours
de forces. There's nothing self-conscious or self-regarding here.
However technically complex the writing, the music, voices and instrumental
lines flow with a warmth and ease that make listening a delight. Yes,
there is contrapuntal and textural substance and depth but in the
end - as the composers would want - we enjoy the aural experience.
Nor is the vital role, the clarity and incision of the text overlooked
or underplayed. Each piece emerges as a fully-valid work in its own
right. Each track, if you will, is a little gem.
The performances have such edge and control that you await the next
as the present finishes. You feel, by the end of the hour or so's
music, that you have had an insight into the composing practices of
the late fifteenth century and become familiar with several its best
known compositions. There’s also a sense of the richness of
this unpretentious and winning music.
The performers, then, are fully in tune with their idiom, their delivery
is unostentatious, clean and yet full of expression. They sing and
play from 'inside' the music, not as advocates for it. Although a
strong case could be made for advancing Isaac's cause until he's seen
by a wider music-loving public as the major figure that he is. The
tone, palettes, momentum, colour and indeed immediate literary and
historical worlds that are recreated by these performers are compelling
indeed. By the way, it's conjectured that Palle, palle [tr.1]
refers to the battle cry of the Medici.
There's a perfect balance of declaratory confidence and gentleness,
maybe at times gentility, in these performances. Les Flamboyants are
specialists in the period, to be sure but the music is projected as
worth listening to rather than offered as a sample of something. Enunciation
of the texts is as clear as articulation of the various instrumental
timbres and dynamics. The latter vary almost from item to item and
certainly provide real and unflagging sonic and mental interest.
In place of gimmicks or self-conscious 'extras' Form and Les Flamboyants
live up to the group's name: they're full of style and class but never
let veneer obscure substance. This is music to be studied, enjoyed,
marvelled at and, above all, to become familiar with. It's much more
than technical model, curiosity, historical exemplum. It stands in
its own right and Les Flamboyants explain just why.
The booklet is nicely informative; especially in providing each manuscript's
source. That said, it is imperfectly proofed. It contains the texts
of just eight of the works in the original with German translations.
The acoustic is close, focused and conducive to careful listening.
Though not too dry, the instruments and voices sound more immediate
than deliberately staged for effect. Isaac is too important a composer,
his music too special and beautiful, for almost any and every collection
of performances thereof not to be seized on by lovers of early Renaissance
Heinrich ISAAC (c.1450 - 1517)
Ein Frölich Wesen
Palle, palle [1:44]
Tart ara [2:13]
J'ay pris amours [3:49]
La Spagna [1:22]
Et je boi autant [0:54]
In meinem Sinn a 4 [1:20]
De tous biens pleine/Et qui le dira [1:36]
Mon pere m'adonne mari a 4 [1:13]
Een vroylic wesen [1:16]
Le serviteur hault guerdonne [4:36]
Tristitia vestra [1:21]
Der Hundt: Das kind lag in der wiegen - Secunda pars [6:31]
Benedictus qui venit [1:53]
Fortuna in mi [2:28]
Par ung jour de matinee [1:27]
Fortuna desperata [1:21]
Sanctus (Fortuna desperata) [1:39]
Frater conradus in fa/Exemplum [1:23]
Fortuna/Bruder Conrat [1:18]
Fortuna disperata/Sancte petre/Ora pro nobis [1:32]
Jacques BARBIREAU (1455 - 1491)
Een vroylic wesen [2:13]
Guillaume DUFAY (c.1400 - 1474)
Le serviteur hault guerdonne [4:36]
Juan de URREDE (c.1430 - after 1482)
Nunqua fu pena magiore [5:05]
Anonymous (15th Century)
Numqua fue pena maior [2:31]
Antoine BUSNOYS ? (c.1430 - 1492)
Fortuna desperata [1:21]