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EndBeginning New York Polyphony

New York Polyphony
Early Music America

By Karen Cook

New York Polyphony

New York Polyphony, the acclaimed male quartet specializing in Renaissance and contemporary music, released their fifth recording, EndBeginning, earlier this year. Its cover features a rather attention-grabbing photograph of the decaying Chapel Rose, attached to an abandoned 19th-century Belgian hospital. Light emanating through stained glass falls onto a filthy floor covered in old furniture and human detritus.

If this picture is meant to be a metaphor for the bleak, despairing texts recorded here, then New York Polyphony is the light shining into the room. The ensemble has quickly become known for their gorgeous blend, a beautifully unified line in both chant and polyphonic settings, and a sustained sense of motion that never stagnates. Anything they record would be well worth a listen.

The selections recorded here, coming both from plainchant tradition and from the Franco-Flemish Renaissance masters, reflect mortality and hope for salvation, and have long been overlooked. The four-voice setting of the Lamentations of Jeremiah by Thomas Crecquillon is recorded here for the first time, and thank goodness for that, because it is simply lovely. The dissonances in the opening bars are brought out with intensity, the density of the movements never overshadows the moving lines, and the speed works with the phrasing of the individual lines.

Antoine Brumel's Missa pro defunctis is one of the earliest surviving Requiems that we know of, and the first to include a polyphonic setting of the Dies Irae, but it often gets overshadowed by his 12-voice Missa Et ecce terrae motus and his Missa L’homme Arme. Here, its homophonic simplicity is tastefully shaded by a constant sense of waxing and waning that highlights the somber nature of its text.

Jacobus Clemens non Papa's setting of Psalm 31, Tristitia obsedit me, is actually paraphrased from the last writings of martyred Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola, whose bonfires of the vanities and eventual death in 1498 made him a household name. Clemens rearranged passages from his texts to show a movement from despair in the first half to faithful hope in the second, musically expressed through imitation and the obsessive repetition of phrases.

Absalon fili mi is attributed to Josquin des Prez, though the liner notes clarify that some doubt exists; the work may have been written by the slightly younger Pierre de la Rue. Regardless, it's a stunning motet, and surprisingly uplifting for a dire text about the death of David's son.

The last work is an encore of sorts to the rest of the disc, a contemporary piece commissioned by the ensemble from composer Jackson Hill. A reworking of the famed rondeau of Guillaume de Machaut, the fantasy Ma fin est ma commencement sees Machaut's original melodies fragmented, rearranged, and eventually brought back together in a harmonically sparse, bleakly beautiful way. This is a fabulous new composition and a perfect finish to the recording.

I couldn't help but be moved by the somber texts, the beautiful musicality, and the composers' rejoicing in hope for life after death. This recording is a must for fans of Renaissance or contemporary polyphony.