Ockeghem: Missa "Ecce ancilla Domini" / Missa Mi-Mi

Johannes Ockeghem 2
Paradise Regained
The Sound and the Fury
ORF "Alte Musik" 3130

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.

This recording was named my EM Record of the Year for 2012.

To renaissance sacred list

Todd M. McComb