Jacob OBRECHT (1533-1604)
Benedicamus in laude [1.17]
Sub Tuum Praesidium (plainchant) [0.50]
Missa Sub Tuum Praesidium
Kyrie [3.53]
Gloria [5.00]
Credo [4.24]
Sanctus & Benedictus [4.52]
Agnus Dei [5.15]
Salve Crux [10.35]
Beata es Maria [4.30]
Salve Regina a 3 [12.20]
Mille Quingentis [7.50]
Factor Orbis [8.49]
The Clerks’ Group: Edward Wickham (director/bass); Helen Neeves (soprano);
Carys Lane (soprano); Lucy Ballard (alto); William Missin (alto); Chris Watson (tenor)
Matthew Vine (tenor); Jonathan Arnold (bass); Robert Macdonald (bass)
rec. St. Andrew’s, West Wratting February 2003
ALTO ALC1308 [69.39]

A most welcome reissue! This CD originally appeared on the excellent ASV/Gaudeamus label, and its reissue provides an invaluable introduction to a major composer of his time. There is more to this than just another piece of ecclesiastical polyphony. Obrecht was a genuine original, acknowledged by his contemporaries as the major figure in music in the Low Countries.

Obrecht was a clergyman, about whose life not much is known. He was the son of the city trumpeter of Ghent and may well have played the trumpet himself. Certainly he knew very well how to use counterpoint and to improvise over a cantus firmus. He was much esteemed, commissioned, principally, to produce masses and other liturgical works – his Missa Regina caeli was commissioned by the Emperor Maximilian. He spent time in Italy, dying in Ferrara of the plague. Erasmus was in one of his choirs, in about 1476.

The most substantial work here is one of Obrecht’s most unusual, the Missa Sub Tuum Praesidium. The plainchant text, ‘Sub tuum praesidium’ (‘We flee to your protection, holy mother of God…..’) is heard – in the same form – over each part of the mass. The mass texts form an accompaniment, but are wholly audible, as prayers within the overall plea to the Mother of God. Each element of the mass has an added richness. The Kyrie is in three voice parts, the Gloria four, with a part added each time until the Agnus Dei, with seven voices – a glorious blend. To make the ‘Sub tuum praesidium’ fit, Obrecht abbreviates the text of the Credo. The plainchant verses, like the voices, themselves become longer from the Credo onwards.

Similar ingenuity is apparent in the other works here. The Salve Regina and Factor Orbis are both highly sophisticated. Repeated listening reveals new strands of subtle variation – in Factor Orbis a passage returns at half-speed to provide both meditative space and the opportunity to enjoy again its complexity.

Of special interest is the motet Mille Quingentis, a prayer for the soul of Obrecht’s father, who died in 1488. The text is not modest – father Willem was ‘he who produced the Orpheus Jacob for the Muses’ – and the music rather self-consciously ingenious. It is an advertisement for the composer’s brilliance as much as a prayer of eternal rest. But it is beautiful!

This was always a recording of fine quality. The remastering is splendid. Music of a high order and a valuable introduction to an incompletely appreciated master.
Michael Wilkinson

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