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Ockeghem: Requiem; Divitis: Sanctus, Lux eterna.

This disc is a breath of fresh air, if not an entirely satisfying one. The ubiquity of English choirs and ensembles in the current discography has undoubtedly coloured our perception of what Franco-Flemish music ought to sound like. (In the case of Ockeghem's Requiem, only the Hilliard Ensemble (EMI CDC 7 49213 2) and Pro Cantione Antiqua (Archiv 415 293-2) offer credible alternatives.) Christopher Page has recently anatomized the received notions informing this new contenance angloise (EM, XXI/3 (Aug 1993), pp-452-7l) - above all, the emphasis on a homogeneous choral sound with minimal vibrato and a general tendency to |under-interpretation'. He points out that this approach is regarded rather quizzically abroad; but in the absence of a comparable discography from ensembles over the water, the sound of this music is very much that of the post-Munrow school.

So it is refreshing to hear Ockeghem sung by voices which are recognizably un-English. Marcel Peres and his Ensemble Organum rarely venture into the domain of sacred polyphony. This is a pity, for they have already proved themselves with a superb recording of Josquin's Missa Pange lingua (with the Ensemble Clement Janequin, HM901239). The tenors' emphasis on chest-tone clearly differentiates them from their English counterparts. It is as though English ensembles match their lower voices to the high partials of the choirboy and the countertenor, whereas ensembles like Organum start from the basses' rich, deep low Cs and build upwards.

This depth has worked wonders for the plainchant that forms the group's core repertory, so it is appropriate that they should present Ockeghem's Requiem in its liturgical context (an approach they previously applied to the Josquin recording). This aspect of the programme is beautifully judged. Rightly or wrongly, I usually experience chant-interpolations as so many distractions from the polyphony; here Peres's intonation of the reading and Gospel (the resurrection of Lazarus) is literally awe-inspiring. And because the same group of singers perform both chant and polyphony, there is no audible break in continuity. In this sense, Organum beat their rivals hands down: they present us not with a concert, but with as convincing a re-creation of a Mass for a dead king as one is likely to find on CD.

So why the frustration? Well, the flaws in the performance of the polyphony might easily have been put right with a few extra takes. On the other hand, Organum have been performing the work for several years on and off (I remember a broadcast of excerpts on French television as long ago as 1989, complete with mourner's cowls), suggesting that some interpretative details have not been quite thought through. However, the problems encountered here give rise to some stimulating questions.

In the Introit, Kyrie and Gradual the choice of a pitch standard of a 5th below the notated values allows the top lines to be sung by tenors rather than countertenors. The concluding Offertory, however, is sung at pitch. As the Requiem is based on a collection of chants in different modes, a flexible approach to pitch seems perfectly plausible, and the generally lower ranges are by no means out of place in a work of this type. As it turns out, the overall compass of the Introit and Kyrie is nearly identical to that of the Offertory.

This seemingly sensible strategy breaks down during the Tractus, whose overall vocal ranges far exceed those of the other movements. Whereas the opening duo for high voices is sung at the lower pitch standard, the following duo for low voices is sung at the higher one. (The former resumes during the three- and four-voice sections.) Already questionable in itself, this internal inconsistency seriously violates the movement's structure. Both the duos and the three-voice sections are in two segments, the first of which begins on a unison G and ends on an F; the second begins on F and returns to G. The partial transposition destroys this symmetry, and is difficult to justify in practical terms: in the (transposed) Gradual, the bass already descends to D, and sounds perfectly secure. To preserve the integrity of the Tractus, only one low C would have been required. A very deep bass part, certainly, but surely preferable to the implied admission that Peres's scheme doesn't work.

Another bold move that doesn't quite come off in practice is the substitution of the later movements that happen not to survive in the Requiem's sole source (the Chigi Codex) with movements from another polyphonic setting attributed variously to Divitis and Fevin. Once again the problem is one of consistency. The Sanctus is performed at one pitch standard (necessitating the inclusion of boy trebles), and the |Lux eterna' at another. (I also wonder why Divitis's Agnus Dei is dropped in favour of plainchant.) Although its execution is not entirely convincing, Peres's solution to the problem of the missing movements raises an intriguing question: might not Chigi's transmission of the work be incomplete? Most other early settings of the Requiem include a Sanctus, Agnus and |Lux eterna', and most (particularly La Rue's) reflect Ockeghem's influence to a greater or lesser extent; the curious structure of the fascicles transmitting Ockeghem's work strongly suggests such a possibility.

In other respects this intriguing performance is a mixed bag. Occasionally the rhythmic detail is slightly fudged, as in the two-part writing in the Kyrie and Tractus. In the latter the tempos are ill-chosen: the same tempus perfectum is interpreted at two entirely different speeds. Purists (especially in England, I suspect) may find the odd ornamental inflection, and the general approach to the plainchant troublesome. In the article mentioned above, Christopher Page notes the widespread suspicion among English scholars of what he calls |the Arab hypothesis', of which Peres is a leading exponent. Though I do not share that suspicion, one may question the relevance of such an approach to 15th-century France.

These shortcomings are amply compensated by some well judged details: for the first time on record, the Gradual is sung with the liturgically prescribed repeat of the first section. The four-voice sections throughout are breathtakingly involving (that pianissimo at |Ubi est deus tuus?'!), the Offertory in particular receiving a powerful, stark interpretation that outshines all competition. Despite its quirks and its maddening inconsistencies, I have found myself returning to this recording with increasing pleasure and frequency. I recommend it, if not unreservedly, then at least wholeheartedly.
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Author:Fitch, Fabrice
Publication:Early Music
Article Type:Sound Recording Review
Date:Feb 1, 1994
Previous Article:Worcester Fragments: English Sacred Music of the Late Middle Ages.
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