Bach Consort looks backward from Bach to another master of counterpoint

Sat Nov 20, 2021 at 12:35 pm
Photograph of Bach Consort

Members of Washington Bach Consort performed Renaissance polyphony Friday night. Photo: Kate Wichlinski

Dana Marsh was in the middle of his second season as artistic director of Washington Bach Consort when the coronavirus pandemic closed down the city. While he has continued the group’s focus on its namesake, he has also extended its reach into historically informed performances of other composers. For a program dedicated to high Renaissance polyphony, heard Friday night at First Congregational UCC, Marsh conducted just eight singers and a sackbut player.

Josquin des Prez (1450-1521) is perhaps the greatest composer whose music is almost entirely ignored today outside of specialist circles. August 27 marked the 500th anniversary of his death, an event commemorated by the Vatican, where he served for a time as singer and composer, supposedly carving his signature in the choir loft of the Sistine Chapel.

In spite of Josquin’s reputation, twenty-five years of reviewing has yielded startling few performances of his music. So the chance to hear this program centered on his achievements and his influence on other composers was a delight.

Selections included both the high and low ends of Josquin’s more compact works, the contrapuntal motet and the frottola. Among the former was Inviolata integra et casta es, Maria, a five-part Marian motet. With his typical virtuosity, Josquin permeated the piece with references to the melody of a Gregorian chant for the feast of the Immaculate Conception. The tune is quoted in the second tenor, answered strictly in canon by the alto, and also paraphrased in points of imitation among the other three voices.

Marsh made the clever and historically appropriate decision to have the second tenor part, and other cantus firmus parts, played expertly by Michael Holmes on the sackbut. The difference in timbre helped delineate the musical structure, like a purple thread woven into a tapestry of red and gold. The eight singers, two on each of the other four parts, blended admirably in a rarefied ensemble sound.

The sackbut stood out even more in the composer’s five-voice Salve Regina, playing an ostinato figure taken from the emblematic four-note motto that opens the solemn version of the Marian antiphon of the same name. The singers mingled together one alto and one tenor on each of the high-ranging altus and tenor parts. Josquin generally was not writing for the mixed chorus of men and women prevalent today. Transposing the pitch level to suit such an ensemble sometimes requires extraordinary remedies.

Photo of Washington Bach Consort

Sackbut player Michael Holmes joined members of Washington Bach Consort and conductor Dana Marsh Friday night. Photo: Kate Wichlinski

In pieces where Josquin used a cantus firmus with a text in a different language, giving that part to the sackbut eliminated the macaronic confusion of such a device, as in Nymphes des bois, Josquin’s eulogy on the death of Johannes Ockeghem. The two sopranos, Susan Kavinski and Sara MacKimmie, blended together impeccably on the often high and isolated top part. The ensemble ended this complex five-part work on an austere, perfectly tuned open fifth.

The sackbut also took the French secular chanson tune quoted in long note values in the tenor of Josquin’s five-part Stabat mater dolorosa. Here the otherwise impressive altos, P. Lucy McVeigh and Kristen Dubenion-Smith, were taxed a bit by the low-lying altus part, revealed especially when the superius part above them was silent.

Quartets of singers performed two of Josquin’s fluffier vernacular pieces, neither with a cantus firmus for the sackbut to cover. Kristen Dubenion-Smith presided over In te Domine speravi, clear and fulgent on the melody, while tenors Jacob Perry, Jr. and Gregório Taniguchi cavorted on the middle parts with dulcet tone. P. Lucy McVeigh took the top part in a more understated rendition of the zippy frottola El Grillo.

The pieces by other composers often paled in comparison, like Osculetur me by Pierre de Manchicourt. Crunchy cross-relations here and there raised the eyebrows, but the piece did not feel as comfortable for the ensemble, especially in the prima pars. Presumably because the cantus firmus in this motet was a German popular song, quoted without its text, it was not performed on sackbut.

Three movements of Prophetiae sibyllarum, by Orlande de Lassus, once again underscored the experimental nature of these quirky motets, composed on cryptic texts attributed to ancient Greek prophetesses. Now on solid four-part footing, the eight singers expertly tuned the wild chromatic shifts, especially in “Sibylla Libyca,” built on the solid foundation of basses Jason Widney and Edmund Milly.

Nicolas Gombert stood up best in the comparison to Josquin, represented by his erudite motet Musae Jovis, a lament on the death of Josquin. Like many such elegiac works, the style is retrospective, with many musical nods backward to Josquin, such as the descending imitative lines at the words “Josquinus ille occidit” (Josquin himself is dead), in a tangled, contrapuntal cascade.

The dedicatory motet Carole Magnus eras, written by Jacobus Clemens non Papa for Charles V, made a suitably heraldic conclusion to the evening. Even without the presence of the sackbut, the octet of singers opened up the floodgates for the work’s broad, loud ending, enumerating the territories held by the Holy Roman Emperor, including those seized in the Spanish colonization of the Americas.

The program repeats 7 p.m. Saturday at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Alexandria.

Leave a Comment


 Subscribe via RSS