New York Polyphony CD Review

07.01.12
New York Polyphony
Fanfare

By Barry Brenesal

BRUMEL Missa proo defunctis. CRECQUILLON Lamentationes Jeremiae, CLEMENS Tristitia obsedit me. LA RUE (attrib) Absalon fili mi. HILL Ma fin est mon commencement. ANON Libera me, Domine. In paradisum • NY Polyphony • BIS 1949

A program of sacred music meant to convey “grief, loss, and mortality” I get, but why Western Europe in the first half of the 16th century? Whatever  the liner notes may imply, it was no more filled  with violence and sickness than previous times ––if anything, the middle class in most urban areas was earning more, goods were moving on an unprecedented international scale, and mortality rates  were down over previous times. (especially when compared to the entirety of the 14th century, with its numerous religious revolts, mass reprisals, endless banditry, and posiibly the most devastating pandemic in history, the so-called Black Death of 1348_50.) And while we obviously can’t get into the heads of our distant ancestors, there is a general consensus that the works on this disc are not expressive in the modern sense of the word (with due allowance for the extraordinary Absalon fili mi), however intense the texts they employed. So this really isn’t a program about an especially ugly period being responded to with heart-wrenching music, as we’re led to believe. It is, instead, a program of mostly early 16th-century works from the Franco-Flemish School that demonstrate just how excellent an ensemble New York Polyphony is, and for me, that's enough.

On to the music. A couple of friends of mine who performed Bromel's Requiem Mass some years ago insisted that if not for supplying one of the earliest known examples of the Dies irae theme in polyphony, it would remain on the shelf. (The otherwise completely unknown Engarandus Juvenis, whose works are only found today in the so-called Staffarda Codex, wrote a Requiem Mass ofroughly the same period that uses the Dies irae in its Sequentia, as well.) Certainly in lieu of the smoothly flowing, intricate counterpoint of his own Franco-Flemish generation and much of Bromel's other work, this Missa pro defunctis concentrates in general upon simple homophonic textures-presumably acquired from secular Italian music heard during the composer's years spent as choirmaster to Alfonso d'Este at Ferrara, after the death of Jacob Obrecht. The Mass's movements are given in a mostly stark, note-for-syllable context, with interpolated plainchant. The result lacks the intellectual brilliance ofOckeghem's earlier Requiem Mass, or the beauty and variety of La Rue's.

Crecquillon's Lamentationes JeremilE is an entirely different matter. Here is Franco-Flemish imitative polyphony in its glory, persuasively cumulative in effect, if with little of the overt emotional fluency of Josquin. The most unusual aspect of Jacobus Clemens's Tristitia obsedit me is its conflation of texts written in prison by the fiery Catholic zealot-bigot or martyr-reformer depends on which side of the fence you fall on; perhaps both-Girolamo Savanarola. Clemens isn't well represented on disc, so this motet would be welcome in any case as a fine example ofhis texturally varied style, effortless counterpoint, and Josquin-like boldness.

Josquin brings us to Absalom jiU mi; or rather, it did. The liner notes attribute it tentatively to Josquin, but recent source research suggests this extraordinary motet (with its despairing descent into personal hell depicted through a circle of fifths, via a falling arpeggiated figure) is by La Rue, so he gets the tentative attribution instead in our headnote. Aside from two examples of plainchant (one a Libera me, Domine treated properly by New York Polyphony withfauxbourdon), the fmal piece on this album is contemporary. Jackson Hill's reflective Ma jin est mon commencement can best be described as an affecting, extended riff on Machaut's famous crab canon, its close harmonic figures set to a minimalist ostinato.

Internationally known a cappella ensembles for four male voices aren't that common in early music. Among these, the vocal distribution ofNew York Polyphony-<:ountertenor, tenor, baritone, bass-is lower than the Orlando Consort-<:ountertenor, two tenors, baritone and the former makes excellent use of that depth in Absalom jiU mi. Capilla Flamenca shares their organization, but Marnix De Cat's distinctively bright, almost choirboyish sound makes their textures seem the lighter of the two, and New York Polyphony blends its textures a bit more. They also use that darker color to their regular advantage, and make excellent play of re-balancing the various registers for effect. Some listeners who prefer a more consistently even, balanced voicing in this music might criticize the ensemble's use of dramatics at times as gratuitous: emphasizing the harmonic clashes between the vocal lines at the start of the first movement in the Lamentationes JeremilE, for instance, or offering an upward slide on the third entry of the word "Zain." Others like myself will relish a musically interpretative approach that is stylistically apposite, and never falls over the edge into cheap theatrics.

I'm not as pleased with the slightly cavernous and overly resonant sound, making the ensemble seem more like eight people than four. It interferes a bit with the definition of each part and the clarity of the text, though not to the extent of some recordings I've heard indicative of a belief that giant cathedrals were the sole venue for all music before the late 18th century. Engineering aside, though, this is a fine release, one that should please fans of New York Polyphony, and bring new admirers to their art.