Saturday, 18 January 2014

La Quinta essentia

La Quinta essentia - Huelgas ensemble/Paul Van Nevel - HMG 501922
Masses by Lassus, Palestrina & Ashewell: Huelgas Ensemble/Paul Van Nevel
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jan 18 2014
Rating: 4.0 stars

Fascinating contrasts in three different masses

This disc, a reissue of a Harmonia Mundi recording originally made in 2005, places three renaissance masses by rather different composers in close proximity.  Paul van Nevel and the Huelgas Ensemble perform Roland de Lassus's Missa 'Tous les regretz', Thomas Ashewell's Missa 'Ave Maria' and Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina's Missa Ut re mi fa sol la.  Made in the Museum of Water in Lisbon, the disc's title comes from the legendary fifth essence, from whence we get quintessence.

Both Lassus and Palestrina flourished at the same period during the 16th century but temperament and circumstance mean that their music is far more contrasting than one might expect. Palestrina trained and worked his entire life in Rome, holding a series of appointments within the Roman Catholic Church producing polyphony of rich subtlety. Lassus's background and training were more varied . He spent most of his working life at the court of the Duke of Bavaria in Munich combining sophistication and magnificence in his music.

The third composer in the trilogy on this disc is something of a sport. Rather than Palestrina and Lassus's great contemporary Victoria, Paul Van Nevel has turned to he Englishman Thomas Ashewell. Ashewell belongs to the generation preceding Palestrina and Lassus, but his music belongs to a very different world. That of English flamboyant polyphony, a time when England remained musically isolated from mainland Europe. Ashewell worked at Tattershall College, Lincoln Cathedral and Durham Cathedral. Only two complete works by him are known, one of which is this Missa 'Ave Maria' for six voices.

All three masses are based on pre-existing material, both Palestrina and Ashewell use a cantus firmus whereas Lassus uses various elements of a pre-existing piece. The three are different in other ways, each takes a different selection of movements Ashewell omits the Kyrie (as was usual in England at that time), and Palestrina does not set the Credo. Ashewell's rather different attitude is seen in the way his mass is ten minutes longer, and his Sanctus runs to nearly six minutes longer than Lassus's.

Lassus Missa 'Tous les regretz' is based on a polyphonic chanson Tous les regretz by Nicolas Gombert. Lassus uses a variety of elements from the chanson, including tonality (Dorian mode on G), voicing (6-parts), melodic and harmonic elements. But he makes them his own, creating music of striking grandeur. Lassus is interested in harmonic colour and form rather than just well-made polyphony. This is a mass which would have sounded well in the Duke of Bavaria's chapel, its musical effects forming a counterpart to the splendour.

The Huelgas Ensemble sing Lassus's  music with vibrant straight and upfront tone, creating a very vivid performance. Tempi are brisk, but the result is superbly done and refreshingly no nonsense. There is a very much a feel of an ensemble of individuals, with different voices being apparent. The singers bring a fine clarity to the piece.

Ashewell's mass is based on a plainchant cantus firmus but the end result is vastly different to the Palestrina mass which concludes the disc. Ashewell uses the cantus firmus as a base on which to build music of astonishing complexity and virtuosity. Words become irrelevant as we have long melismatic sections, full of rhythmic variety. And Ashewell is interested in variations of tempo, rhythm and texture, including sections for two or three voices.

The Huelgas Ensemble give a wonderfully poised performance. They still sing with find straight tone, but modified by the flowing ornamented lines. The sections for reduced voices give us some lovely solo moments. You can sense Ashewell enjoying the contrasts and textures. Paul Van Nevel's performance flows well with a nicely feel for the changing tempos.

Palestrina's Missa Ut re mi fa so la is based on the six note cantus firmus which gives the mass its name. Palestrina uses this to bind the movements together, creating a consistency of approach and style. This makes for superbly consistent and well-made polyphony, balance and poised. The ensemble's performance style is less upfront than the other two masses. They give us more consistently well moulded phrases. This is a performance full of balance and poise, of great tranquil beauty.

The performances on the disc are of a different style to some other performances of this style of music by English groups. The Huelgas Ensemble perform with the same technical proficiency, but the bring to the music a vibrant straight-edged sound which I find very appealing. I perhaps would not want the performances to be the only ones that I had, but I certainly want this in my library.

la Quinta essentia - The quintessence of a musical art
Orlandus Lassus (1532 - 1594) - Missa "Tous les regretz" [21.36]
Thomas Ashewell (c1478-1513) - Missa "Ave Maria" [33.37]
Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (c.1525 - 1594) - Missa Ut re mi fa sol la [20.30]
Huelgas Ensemble
Paul Van Nevel (director)
Recorded 2005, Lisbon
HARMONIA MUNDI HMG 501922 1CD [77.19]

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