Thursday, September 04, 2008

Utopia Triumphans

I might have mentioned this CD in passing before, but its importance has grown on me, so I would like to draw some more attention to it: Utopia Triumphans, sung by the Huelgas Ensemble directed by Paul Van Nevel. Of all the CDs of renaissance polyphony I own, this one stands out as a fantastic compilation of the most spectacular compositions of the entire period, some known and some far less well known, but all sung and recorded with great finesse and balance.

Here is the line up:

1. Spem in alium - Thomas Tallis (40 voice parts)
2. Sanctus, Agnus Dei - (from the `Missa Ducalis`) - Costanzo Porta (13 voice parts)
3. Qui habitat (Psalm 90) - Josquin Desprez (24 voice parts)
4. Deo gratias - Johannes Ockeghem (36 voice parts)
5. Laudate Dominum - Pierre de Manchicourt (6 voice parts)
6. Exaudi me Domine - Giovanni Gabrieli (16 voice parts)
7. Ecce beatam lucem - Allesandro Striggio (40 voice parts)

So you undoubtedly notice that the music here is selected for its over-the-top biggness and complexity. No regular parish choir will be singing any of this music anytime soon. Even if you have the numbers and the talent to do it, the music can be extremely harrowing. It tends to tip and fall unless masters are doing the singing and conducting. For this reason, it is extremely rare, but I can think of few CDs I've heard that compare it its capacity for eliciting complete astonishment. Jaw dropping is the phrase one Amazon reviewer used, and this is precisely it.

It is all too easy these days to believe that you are somehow educated and enlightened concerning "classical" music while in fact knowing very little about music before the time of Bach. The mystery is to why this is so will probably always be with us, but it has something to do with entrenched cultural and secular biases, and the belief that all real music must have some sort of orchestral or percussive foundation.

What this CD accomplishes is the wholesale shattering of this bias. In scale, all these pieces compare to Mahler's symphonies. But of course they are directed towards eternal ends, and the sound and impression they leave is unmistakably theological and spiritual. It tempts you to wonder how it is that music could be so sophisticated, so glorious, so advanced, in the 16th and then tend over the centuries to a systematic decline. I don't really think that's true, but you can believe it when listening to this.

Believe me, you will be astounded at the music you will find here, and never again will you tolerate the view that accomplished composition began with Bach. I would even say that if you can get only one CD of polyhphony, this is the one to get. You will be amazed. Also, the price is right.

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