Fra Bernardo: Pierre de la Rue

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Program: #18-44   Air Date: Oct 23, 2018

The unusual Austrian label gives us a fairly-well-known composer, but with world-premiere recordings of previously-unrecorded masses.

NOTE: All of the music on this program comes from the recording Pierre de la Rue: Masses on the Fra Bernardo label featuring the ensemble Beauty Farm. It is CD FB 1800751. For more information:
From MusicWeb-International: I must admit to a prejudice; when I saw that the name of the group of singers was ‘Beauty Farm’ and that the cover was of a topless man in blue jeans looking like Saint Sebastian with arrows protruding from his back and arms and the inside photo was of a ‘hoody’ I found myself wondering to whom this all male four-voiced group might be appealing.

But then I heard the sound they make, mellow and resonant, their performances deeply considered and measured, the booklet notes interesting and relevant, coupled with the realisation that this coming November (2018) will mark the 600th anniversary of this most elusive of composers. Enigmatic even, and quite different from his great contemporary Josquin. And we have a great deal to catch up on as it seems that more than thirty masses can be credited to de la Rue which is several more than Josquin.

So here we have four premiere recordings of masses each of which is of a high quality and each quite differently set. The first on CD 1 is the Missa Almana. Its title has defeated scholars but a suggestion is that the work actually translated as ‘widow’ and as de la Rue worked for Joanna of Castile a widow and Margaret of Austria who had been widowed twice for many years and constantly wore black there may be some logic in the idea. Anyway it is a sombre mass, with the bass requirements below the stave, brilliantly managed here by Joachim Höchbauer; but, although the music is sober in tone there is much lovely sequential writing, especially in the Agnus Dei, which is of a contrasting ‘major’ tonality. This seems as if it could be derived from a song, and de la Rue certainly has left some satisfying and well-known secular pieces. The Mass may well be one of the earliest by de la Rue.

The Missa de Sancto Antonio may well date from the period around 1500-1503 and represents a strong interest in this desert father and the austerity of his life, which perhaps the court felt was also incumbent upon them at certain times although the Saint’s day actually falls during the season of Epiphany. Again, the sound is rich and deep in tone quality and quite different from the recent recording and discovery of de la Rue’s Missa Nuncqua fue pena mayor recorded by The Brabant Ensemble. (Hyperion CDA68150).

Whereas the Missa Alamana is based on a strange series of pitches c-f-e-a for example, the Missa de Sancto Antonio is based on an antiphon “whose melody- sometimes ornamented beyond recognition – underlies the mass”. (booklet notes by Wolfgang Fuhrmann.) It is a wonderfully lyrical work, again with some sequential writing and with an emphasis on wide-ranging, intensive polyphony. Again the performance captures the warmth and fervour ideally.

The comments about these thoughtful and intelligent performances made above, needless to say also apply to the second disc, which opens with the Missa Puer natus est nobis. This was published by Petrucci in 1503 along with the Missa Almana and it comes across as feeling quite ‘modern’. It is a wonderfully melodic creation full of long, lyrical lines some imitative counterpoint and some sequential patterning and I quote “his characteristic rich texture is achieved through the imitative play of motives”. In addition the pitch is higher, lighter by a fourth so suitable for the Christmas season. I can’t tell you how beautiful this music is and how my respect for de la Rue, which has been suspect for a number of years, has considerably risen as a result. And this also as a consequence of the superb voices in Beauty Farm who were founded as recently as 2014. Each singer incidentally, is an experienced early music performer and has sung with the ‘Huelgas Ensemble’ and ‘Collegium Vocale Ghent’ to name but two long established ensemble.

Finally, we come to one of de la Rue’s last works his Missa Tous les Regretz a parody mass based on a popular chanson by I believe, Antoine Brumel, and is a mellifluous piece as a consequence, the original of which is more in evidence in the Kyrie but the mass as a whole has a lightness of touch despite some very low bass writing and is more in what we would term a major key. As a consequence, to this listener, it seems more predictable and less moving. But something I haven’t yet mentioned which is very noticeable in this mass, but is also used elsewhere as in the Missa de Sancto Antonio, is de la Rue’s vocal colourings, achieved by sometimes having sections or passages for two or three voices as opposed to the continuous thicker polyphony of all four parts. As in the middle section of the Agnus dei here for the upper voices and the opening of the third section for the two lower voices.

The recording took place in the Baroque glory of an East Austrian church which certainly aids the over all acoustical clarity.

This is, it seems, a limited edition album so if it interests you, then buy it online quickly. You know it makes sense!

Gary Higginson

Pierre de la RUE (c.1450-1518)
Missa Almana a 4 [33.10]
Missa de Sancto Antonio a 4 [31.52]
Missa Puer Natus est nobis a 4 [32.38]
Missa Tous le Regretz a 4 [29.15]
Beauty Farm (Bart Uvyn-counter-tenor; Hans Mammel and Hannes Wagner-tenors and Joachim Höchbauer-bass)
rec. Refectory, Chatreuse Mauerbach. 2016

Composer Info

Pierre de la Rue (c.1450-1518).

CD Info

CD FB 1800751.