What's not to like about a program of four La Rue mass cycles? I might quibble about the current trend to record masses over other material, but this is some superb material, excellently performed.
Indeed, whereas none of these masses — with the possible exception of the Tous les regretz, a relatively late four-voice parody setting on La Rue's own chanson — would be considered either at the apex of La Rue's oeuvre, or to occupy a special place (with the possible exception of the Pourquoy non which might be La Rue's first mass cycle), that's part of what makes the program so striking: The quality of the music is simply so high. That it's "normal" for La Rue only seems to make the program more compelling.
I gave the Pourquoy non title, rather than Almana (as its listed in the set), because I find those arguments (too recent for the notes, apparently) to be compelling: If this is La Rue's first setting, it's quite sophisticated. I don't find it to be as appealing overall as some other masses, but it's neither crude nor uninspired. In fact, if the Pourquoy non is correct, it only serves to illustrate the sophistication of La Rue's embryonic parody technique right from the beginning — or at least near the beginning — of his compositional activity in the genre. The mass is full of stacked motives & rhythmic offsets, already making for a complex tapestry. I'm sure it made an immediate impression, but might not have been showy enough to really catapult a career. (Of course, La Rue would get to the highest appointments, if he wasn't there already.)
Next chronologically (per what we know, anyway) is the Puer natus, and whereas a Christmas mass might seem like something of a cliché — it could be paired with La Rue's Missa Paschale for instance, as recorded by Sanvoisin, although that's in five parts — the simple majesty of this setting is both immediately appealing & satisfying overall. This is the sort of setting that would have turned heads if it appeared from a less famous composer, and indeed it might be the most straightforwardly enjoyable on the program. (It's surely the sunniest.) What one feels, beyond the craftsmanship, is a profound sense of space (& so possibility).
Less straightforward, but still relatively early (we think), is the Missa de Sancto Antonio (on St. Anthony Abbot, or Anthony the Great, among other names, as also honored with a mass cycle by Dufay) with its strange mensural complications. Whereas it might be the hardest to appreciate initially, there is apparently something rather philosophical (or, one might say, spiritual — if the context wasn't already the Catholic mass) happening there, with metric ambiguity less for show (as some of La Rue's more climactic pieces are) & more (apparently, although it largely escapes me for the moment) to make a musical argument. Perhaps in keeping with St. Anthony's confinement, the intricate melodic lines don't project an open sense of space, but are almost claustrophobic — maybe even reminiscent of Agricola.
Finally, the Tous les regretz comes from rather later in La Rue's career, as noted, and uses his own chanson — as does Pourquoy non (if indeed that's what's happening there). In many ways it's a rather austere work, and perhaps this is already indicated by the use of four voices (as many of La Rue's more spectacular later masses use five), such that the chanson more thoroughly animates the mass. There is not much "extra" activity, consequently, yet there is a feel of openness, as individual phrases are sometimes chiseled to nearly minimal gestures, all while varying subtly. There is thus almost a sense of withdrawal amid the mastery, perhaps a new helping of regret? There is also a wonderful sense of clarity at times amid the (sometimes severe) melancholy & concision. So this isn't quite the lush world of e.g. Incessament, but it's clearly one of La Rue's most personal & polished cycles, making for a compelling ending to the double album. (It's becoming one of my favorite cycles.)
The performance continues the Beauty Farm trend, most recently illustrated in their Bauldeweyn double album, and if anything, it's even more compelling. There is great energy throughout, with close attention to middle voices, and clear handling of what are sometimes thorny rhythms. Everything is audible both in the one-to-a-part singing, and in the recording, which is neither overly resonant nor overly quiet. In fact, that four masses that hadn't necessarily stood out in their composer's oeuvre — an oeuvre that is increasingly well covered on recording — could end up forming such a compelling album is a huge credit to Beauty Farm & their various scholars & producers. As far as I'm concerned, this is exactly how this music should be sung.
To renaissance sacred listTodd M. McComb