Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Missa Pro Maximiliano

Blunden / Desprez / Hofhaimer / Isaac - Missa pro Maximiliano - Isaac, Josquin, etc / Procter, et al CDA wonderful and strange aspect of the current situation in church music is that the recording industry is so much more advanced in its liturgical ambitions and ideals than our own parishes and cathedrals. Maybe we'll catch up someday. But in the meantime, polyphony in recordings is more and more available in liturgically authentic settings, put together by conductors who have an intellectual and even spiritual dedication to the artistic ideals of the Church.

A case in point—and I admit that it has become my latest obsession—is this splendid recording of two Masses by Heinrich Isaac dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary. The first is for 4 voices and the second for 6 voices written for the Imperial Court Chapel (Hofkapelle). Both are "alternatim" settings so that the parts of the Mass are broken in sections of both chant and polyphony.

For the 6-voice setting, in particular, the conductor Michael Procter relied on the dissertation by William Mahrt (president of the CMAA) to include organ improvisation. In short, what you hear is the result of the combination of the highest scholarship with the highest artistic ideals, all put together by a brilliant musician (who himself is a member of the CMAA!).

The total effect is thrilling and inspiring. The men's schola sings with precision and depth--these guys are very serious about what they do. The organ is from the late 15th century and seems to match the size and scale of the schola. What's really striking is the organization. To hear the Gloria (for example) moving from chant, to organ, to polyphony, and to chant again is really exciting—especially so for anyone who might believe that this degree of musical freedom only came about with Vatican II.

Isaac's music is said to be a bit exotic for his period, and it certainly does have fascinating and complex effects. As for the organ parts, Procter tells how he had to search to find an organist who could improvise in a style that died out 500 years ago! He found David Blunden, who was a winner at the Hofhaimer organ competition in Innsbruck. They found a good spot for recording at the church at Rysum in Ostfriesland in the far North of Germany.

A funny note on the opening chant, the "Recordare." They used a special version that is longer than the one in the Graduale. The recording engineer even complained that the last phrase was so elaborately melismatic that it should be cut!

In any case, the experience of listening to this is quite a revelation. It reaches so deep into the past and brings it all to life in a way that is so captivating and truly timeless. We owe such conductors as this such gratitude, not only for recreating history but also for pointing the way forward.

The CD is actually rather difficult to find. It is put out by the Chistophorus label (CHR 77277) but the American distributor doesn't seem to have a very navigable site. I also found it listed at CDUniverse, and this is the place where you can pick up a copy.

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