Obrecht: Masses

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Program: #19-42   Air Date: Oct 07, 2019

The Ensemble Beauty Farm on the Fra Bernardo label is back with a vast new reinterpretation of Obrecht’s Masses Fortuna desperata and Maria Zart (which weighs in at an astounding 55 minutes!).

NOTE: All of the music on this program comes from the recording Jacob Obrecht: Masses on the Fra Bernardo label featuring the ensemble Beauty Farm. It is CD FB 1905157. For more information: http://frabernardo.com/

Jacob Obrecht - Masses - beauty farm
The music of the Renaissance appears to reflect little of the dangers, horrors and violent conflicts of its time. Music written during the Hundred Years War or the French invasion of Italy gives hardly any impression to today’s ears of the precariousness of existence of which its composers, singers and listeners must have continually been aware. Nor do the two masses by Jacob Obrecht (1457/8 – 1505) on this recording betray anything of the restless spirit of the age, despite them both being based on models referring to suffering and misery.
From Medieval.org: First of all, this is an excellent program. Although Obrecht's output shows less stylistic variety than that of some of his peers, and thus many of the mass cycles (which are by far his most substantial contribution) seem similar to others, these two stand out: The Missa Fortuna desperata may be Obrecht's "most characteristic" in that it seems to encapsulate so much of his mature technique & within the broad horizon of one of the dominant themes of the late medieval era, while the Missa Maria zart is his most extended (particularly linearly via sequences).

One might, for instance, compare the former to Josquin's later setting, which it apparently inspired: Josquin presents more textual subtlety & symbolic erudition, but also doesn't have Obrecht's sheer sonic brilliance.... (The secular songs are also a welcome addition to the program, and serve to animate the mass performances right from the start. These are short opening tracks, however.)

The interpretation itself is especially outstanding, perhaps the strongest & most coherent yet for this broader repertory: There is not only an amazing sense of gravity (in what is, after all, religious music), but amazing momentum & clarity. And the four voices are audible individually, yet combine into a greater whole. (The latter is more developed than previously for this ensemble, which nonetheless retains its remarkable attention to tuning & other details.) This is ecstatic music, presented as compellingly as I've ever heard it. In short, this is a remarkable performance of some very enjoyable music. 

From Gramophone: The Fra Bernado label is certainly fulfilling its mission statement to cover ‘white spots on the map of early music’ with this new release from Beauty Farm. Obrecht is quite under-represented on disc and so this recording of his Missa Fortuna desperata and Missa Maria zart is much-needed. Less clear is the mission statement of Beauty Farm themselves: their biography claims they were founded out of ‘a kind of despair about the break in the interpretation of this music which took place in the 1980s’. I admired the rich tone of this vocal ensemble on their debut disc (11/15) but it didn’t then, and doesn’t now, strike me as breaking new ground. Nor do they have much in common with the mainly choral accounts of Obrecht pre-1980.  

To consider this, let’s compare three recordings of Missa Maria zart. This hour-long cyclic Mass is one of the biggest of the Renaissance, a surprising feat at odds with Obrecht’s modest modern profile. The Prague Madrigal Singers in 1969 (Supraphon, 6/72 – nla), singing pre-‘break in interpretation’, took a robust approach alternating a chamber choir – complete with consistent/persistent vibrato – with passages of staunch-toned vocal duets. They also employed a feast of instrumental colours on the cantus firmus. The Tallis Scholars in 1992, presumably emblematic of a ‘break in tradition’, made much lighter work of Obrecht’s busy contrapuntal textures. Their smaller ensemble and minimal vibrato created forwards momentum through gracefully phrased arcs, and they subtly embedded the long-notes of the Maria zart song in the polyphonic texture. Beauty Farm sit between these two approaches but much closer to The Tallis Scholars: their tone is richer, without persistent vibrato, and with one voice per part they delineate each polyphonic strand through different hues of vowel-sounds and shades of vocal effort. They are more confident in busier passages where they have a nice tone, balance and momentum. Longer, two-voice textures spawn occasional sour tuning (‘Qui tollis I’ in the Gloria in particular) but in general they sing with tenderness and maintain attractively brisker tempos than either other recording.

Fortuna desperata   a 3 [Antoine Busnois]
Missa Fortuna desperata a 4

Maria zart   traditional church song
Missa Maria zart   a 4

Composer Info

Jacob Obrecht (1457/8 – 1505).

CD Info

CD FB 1905157.