Ockeghem Masses 2 (Beauty Farm)

Ockeghem Masses 2
Beauty Farm
Fra Bernardo 1909373 [CDx2]

This impressive double album has two distinct recording dates, and absent further clarification, I have to assume that they are for the two different discs, each featuring two masses. That's significant, in part, because the two different discs occasion some different remarks.

Both are closely related to previous programs from the earlier The Sound and the Fury ensemble — earlier in the sense that it had occupied a similar Mauerbach residency to perform this repertory (& has since disbanded?) — as Beauty Farm continues to show clear continuity in its project. In fact, the first program (recorded in 2018?) is identical (but in reverse order) to The Sound and the Fury's Johannes Ockeghem 2 album, recorded in 2010. As such, it shows clear interpretive progress — even, or especially, because that was such a valuable album itself. Meanwhile, the second program (recorded in 2019?) takes another shot at the Missa Cuiusvis toni, which The Sound and the Fury had recorded (in three versions!) on their subsequent Ockeghem album (together with its technical partner, the Missa Prolationum).

Both halves of this double album are then worthwhile, with the first directly replacing an earlier favorite. Indeed, the comments here for that album had been the most read (in this section of the site) for the past decade, so public interest (at least in my comments) must have run high. To that end, I'm going to reproduce them (indented) below, before continuing today (in early 2020):

Although The Sound and the Fury's first Ockeghem disc, featuring the Missa Prolationum & Missa L'homme armé, didn't make much of an impression on me (and it was their first non-Gombert recording), this second Ockeghem disc arrives four years later with much higher expectations built off such landmark recordings as their Caron & La Rue discs. The Missa Mi-Mi has been one of Ockeghem's most enigmatic works, and here we finally have a performance that makes sense. Additionally, the Missa Ecce ancilla Domini has been a favorite in a more traditional style. So there are high expectations here, but they are met admirably.
Obviously I've greatly enjoyed The Sound and the Fury's recordings, generally speaking, and perhaps more explanation of the style is in order here. First of all, they have a very keen sense of both phrasing & ficta (and note that these really go together). This is what makes the Mi-Mi really come together: They're singing correct notes (or at least more correct than anyone's managed yet), and they're singing them in groupings that create coherent phrases that in turn add up to a movement that makes sense. Ockeghem's music features many partial cadences, meaning some voices might cadence while another continues undisturbed, and this contributes to the "sweep" of his music. His mass movements have a sort of onward momentum that seems to continue forward to the close, and it takes a studied approach to the individual phrases in the individual parts to make it both energetic & balanced. The Mi-Mi is particularly in need of sensitivity on this point.
The styles of the two masses on this CD are rather different, of course. The more chordal Mi-Mi is more forward-looking and has more outgoing energy, whereas the Ecce ancilla Domini is more historically-oriented & reflective. One thing The Sound and the Fury does is let the listener hear each individual part clearly, which is very welcome. However, I've seen some complaints from people that it disturbs the "blend" — presumably a desire for a smoothed-out overall sound that's characteristic of some ensembles (who mostly sing later music). Research is rather clear that this modern emphasis on "blend" was a later creation, and not something from the period, which expected individual voices to have individual characters. A distant recording that's reflecting a lot of resonance might make sense for an audience, but it's the up-close interaction of the singers that was how the practitioners heard the music. This repertory in general is music by singers for singers, complete with its oblique allusions that the general public would have never understood. Listen to The Sound and the Fury's version of close harmony on Ecce ancilla Domini... the distinctive individual voices, each clearly audible, but with their overtone relations closely matched. Listen to how the overtones dance, aligning in one point of the spectrum, and then another, as the music moves along. The alignment & sense of detail are impressive. I've also seen a complaint that the tenor notes aren't held long enough. This music isn't undertaken as an exercise in vocal stamina, but rather in judiciously sounding long repeated notes when necessary to support the music. Again, this is based on research. Red Byrd has applied this approach to early organum, in fact. The light play of overtones would be impeded in this music if the tenor set out to hold notes as long as he could. In short, there's a delicacy brought out in this interpretation that is another milestone.
That's what's made The Sound and the Fury's recordings so compelling, of course. Almost every one has revealed something new about music of the period, whether new repertory, an advanced understanding of the notes themselves, or of vocal practice. Someone who dislikes this latter aspect should be asking themselves if they like this music at all, because the practice is based on sound historical research, rather than modern ideals. The near-simultaneous release of a recording by Cappella Pratensis of the Ockeghem & La Rue Requiems does make a good contrast: This is a pleasant performance of the Ockeghem — doesn't take into account the latest research on the notes for the La Rue — and succeeds at being completely unchallenging to the listener, because it does not advance knowledge of this music in any concrete way. So yes, there's a contrast.

Similar interpretive comments apply to Beauty Farm, and although the individuality of the voices might still alienate some listeners, the sense of command & sophistication are that much more developed here. In this, Beauty Farm has certainly continued the vocal tradition of the larger series, and continues to forge more compelling results in turn.

The liner notes for this (perhaps) daunting double album also include a worthwhile discussion of Ockeghem's masses as repertory, as aesthetic discussions (much as I've undertaken here over the years) continue to proliferate. The novelty of composing in the Phrygian mode, with its awkward diminished fifth, are elaborated, and applied here not only to its obvious tour-de-force in the Missa My My, but to the Missa Cuiusvis toni as well — arguing that singability in the other modes follows easily after the Hypophrygian aspect is "solved." The result is a particularly elegant interpretation of the mass in that one mode: The greater variety of modal interpretations elsewhere is still welcome, but this reading does seem to set newly satisfying standards.

The notes are actually rather critical of the Missa Caput, perhaps Ockeghem's first cycle, and it's never been a personal favorite. But it does receive a sympathetic interpretation here (albeit less elaborated than e.g. Graindelavoix), with its low tones — & Ockeghem's early development of bass parts — coming to the fore. Meanwhile, likewise among his earlier settings (& perhaps contemporaneous with Dufay's), the flowing & traditional (in the cantus firmus sense) Missa Ecce ancilla Domini has long been a personal favorite among Ockeghem's more "ordinary" Ordinaries, and it's also given its most energetic & sophisticated interpretation yet. Meanwhile, the formerly sphinx-like character of the Missa My My seems to melt into pure (luminous) appreciation of its hexachord-based intricacy....

Ockeghem's music continues to seem that much more tangible (rather, audible) here in the twenty-first century....

To renaissance sacred list.

Todd M. McComb
Updated: 10 March 2021