Blue Heron Sings Ockeghem in Cambridge

Blue Heron. Photo: Kathy Wittman

Blue Heron Sings Ockeghem’s Missa Prolationum

First Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts

By Christian Carey

Sequenza21.com

March 9, 2019

CAMBRIDGE – Blue Heron’s Ockeghem@600 project has steadily worked its way through much of the composer’s repertoire. On March 9th at First Church, one of the most special evenings of this series was performed: Johannes Ockeghem’s Missa Prolationum. The mass is constructed almost entirely out of a set of double canons, presenting imitative counterpoint throughout and at every scalar interval (a feat only matched by Bach’s Goldberg Variations, but Bach’s include single, not double, canons). The jaw-dropping intricacies of this work’s construction, and the comparative irregularity of its presentation on concert programs, made me more than happy to make the trip from New Jersey to Boston to experience it live.

Johannes Ockeghem, who died in 1497, was during his lifetime highly esteemed as both a composer and singer (some say the low bass lines one sees in his music would likely have been performed by Ockeghem himself). A number of composers and theorists referenced his music, employing it in paraphrase and parody works and holding it up as a paragon of craftsmanship. One of Josquin’s most affecting pieces is Nymphes des bois, a Déploration on the death of Ockeghem. So why isn’t he a household name today among choral enthusiasts? The challenges posed by pieces like Missa Prolationum keep them beyond the reach of any but the most skillful and dedicated ensembles. This is where Blue Heron’s Ockeghem@600 project comes in, raising both awareness for the composer and demonstrating that, while formidable, his is eminently singable music.  

Scott Metcalfe, Blue Heron’s director, carefully curated the program both to elucidate and to entertain. The concert opened with a brief canonic work by Jean Mouton, Ave Maria gemma virginum, which served as a talking point for a brief but animated lecture by Metcalfe. The singers of Blue Heron helped him to illustrate several musical examples that explicated the process of canon and how it was used by Ockeghem. Further demonstration of canonic procedure was provided by Prenez sur moi, one of Ockeghem’s most famous songs.

The program continued by interspersing some of Ockeghem’s songs with movements of the mass. Given the compositional rigor of Missa Prolationum, the inclusion of other music smartly broke it up into more manageable chunks for listeners. It also served to demonstrate the composer’s versatility; the chansons may not include double canons like the mass but are equally inventive in their own respective ways.

Throughout, Blue Heron sang with impressive tone, flawless intonation, and incisive rhythmic clarity. Indeed, the latter characteristic was particularly efficacious. One of the chief rewards of their rendition of the mass was being able to hear, clearly delineated, a veritable labyrinth of interlocking rhythms. As is their practice, Blue Heron shifts around the members of the ensemble (numbering nine singers plus Metcalfe directing and playing harp) from number to number. The upper part features both male and female voices and the rest of the singers, when singing solo, are heterogenous in tone color as well. However, when they join voices, the group adopts a resonant and supple blend.

The performance was inspiring, and the onstage remarks were spot-on in terms of content, level of detail, and duration. In addition to memories of the fine music-making, audience members left with another keepsake: a lovingly curated and detailed program book that was remarkably in-depth for such a document. It was yet another indication of the level of commitment that Metcalfe has brought to the Ockeghem@600 project. Blue Heron’s forthcoming recording of Ockeghem’s complete songs is not to be missed.

-Christian Carey

Blue Heron in New York (Concert Review)

Blue Heron. Photo: Liz Linder

Blue Heron: The Lost Music of Canterbury

Music Before 1800

Corpus Christi Church

February 10, 2019

Sequenza 21 

By Christian Carey

NEW YORK – On February 10th, the Boston-based early music ensemble Blue Heron made one of its regular appearances at the Music Before 1800 series at Corpus Christi Church in Morningside Heights. Directed by Scott Metcalfe, an ensemble of a dozen vocalists performed five selections, all votive antiphons, from the Peterhouse Partbooks. 

Copied by John Bull during the reign of Henry VIII, the partbooks now reside at Peterhouse College of Cambridge University. The tenor book is missing, as are large sections of the treble book, but musicologist Nick Sandon has spent his career reconstructing pieces from the collection. Apart from a few performances and recordings made by British and Canadian ensembles, Blue Heron have been the principal advocates for this rediscovered cache of polyphonic music written for the Catholic Church. Bull compiled the music just a few years prior to the establishment of the Church of England, which brought with it entirely different liturgical practices that rendered the music obsolete. Many partbooks were destroyed during the ascendency, successively, of Anglicanism and Puritanism. This makes Sandon’s contribution all the more noteworthy, in that it restores enough music to significantly add to the choral repertoire available from the pre-Reformation period.   

Blue Heron recently released The Lost Music of Canterbury,a five-CD boxed set of music from the Peterhouse Partbooks with selections by a range of composers, from the well-known Nicholas Ludford to the entirely obscure Hugh Sturmy. The quality of both the music and recorded performances is extraordinarily high. Blue Heron have a beautiful sound custom crafted for this repertoire and display impeccable musicianship. Sadly, none of the antiphons presented on the Corpus Christi concert have yet been recorded by Blue Heron. Indeed, there is a massive amount of music left in the Peterhouse collection yet to be documented. While the group has moved on to other projects – they are currently at work on recordings of the complete songs of Ockeghem and works by Cipriano de Rore – one hopes that at some point funding might allow them to commit the votive antiphons from the Peterhouse repertoire to disc. They proved most compelling in a live setting.  

Votive antiphons were extra-liturgical and traditionally performed in the evening, after Vespers and Compline, by a group of singers gathered around an altar or icon. Marian antiphons were most common and were represented on the concert by two pieces, Arthur Chamberlayne’s Ave Gratia plena Maria and Ludford’s Salve Regina. The former is a vibrant piece articulating a thoughtfully expanded trope of the “Hail Mary” text. Described by Metcalfe as “a word salad,” it does indeed contain a great number of independent lines in overlapping declamation. The sole piece attributed to its author, it provided a tantalizing glimpse of the idiosyncrasies permitted during this time of musical innovation and diversity. Ludford’s uses a more traditional text and is gentler in demeanor; as Metcalfe suggested, a valediction wishing those gathered to hear the antiphon a peaceful evening. 

The other three antiphons invoked various saints. O Willhelme, pastor bone, by John Taverner, was the lone short work here, clocking in at around three minutes; the rest were each about a quarter of an hour in duration. The piece has a fascinating backstory for those who study the history of the Tudors. It was written for Cardinal College, Oxford, where Taverner was instructor of the choirboys, to its patron Saint William, Archbishop of York. It also includes a verse uplifting Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, who founded Cardinal College. Yes, that Cardinal Wolsey, the one who ran afoul of Henry VIII because of his thwarted attempts to obtain a divorce for the monarch. The piece itself is full of Taverner’s characteristic sustained high lines and contains some lovely harmonies. 

Blue Heron at Corpus Christi Church. Photo: Alex Rainer.

One of the composers that Sandon has helped to reinvigorate with his scholarly writings, as well as score restorations, is Hugh Aston. Blue Heron have been champions of Aston since 1999, their founding year. The composer is well-represented on the Lost Music of Canterbury, which, among several pieces, includes his own Marian motet, Ave Maria dive matris Anne, a work of eloquence and fervent yearning: one of the highlights of the CD set. The concert program featured Aston’s O baptista vates Christi, a supplication to Saint John the Baptist. One can see why Blue Heron would like to sing O Baptista: the text asks for protection for the choir, and what choir doesn’t sometimes need protecting? Of course, no such safeguards were necessary at Corpus Christi Church: Music Before 1800 attracts a friendly audience for the group. 

While the aforementioned antiphons impressed, the most remarkable composition on the program was the first one the group performed, O Albane deo grate by Robert Fayrfax. This piece features prominently in Fayrfax’s output. He also fashioned a setting of it dedicated to Mary, O Maria deo grata, with the same music but different words, and used its material as the basis for his parody mass Missa Albanus. The words here commemorate Saint Alban, traditionally considered the first British Christian martyr. Metcalfe usually allows the music to speak for itself, limiting himself to brief introductory remarks. However, before beginning the performance of O Albane, he gave a short demonstration of just a few of the myriad musical treatments by Fayrfax of the plainchant on which it is based. This proved most illuminating, as one could look forward to hearing the hymn fragment interwoven into the counterpoint at key places in the work. Equally enlightening was Metcalfe’s post-concert talkback, in which he fielded questions on a variety of topics, from Reformation worship practices to score restoration to sixteenth century tuning in England. I look forward to hearing Blue Heron again very soon. On March 9th,I will be making a pilgrimage to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to hear them sing Ockeghem’s Missa Prolationum. Look for coverage here on the site. 

(For more about the Lost Music of Canterbury 5 CD boxed set, see www.blueheron.org)

Blue Heron at Corpus Christi Church (Concert Review)

Photo: Liz Linder.
Blue Heron. Photo: Liz Linder.

Blue Heron at Corpus Christi Church

Sequenza 21

By Christian Carey

 

NEW YORK – On December 18th, Boston-based early music ensemble Blue Heron appeared at Corpus Christi Church as part of Music Before 1800’s series there. Their program, titled “Christmas at the Courts of 15th century France and Burgundy,” featured polyphony and plainchant that celebrated the Advent and Christmas seasons. Led by Scott Metcalfe, the fifteen-person ensemble was frequently broken into subsets and often sang without use of a conductor. Metcalfe instead led much of the proceedings from behind a harp or alongside the singers, setting the pace in alternatim hymn settings by Guilliame Du Fay, antiphonal pieces with a large group of unison singers and a smaller group of soloists.

 

The first half of the concert featured music based on the O Antiphons, a collection of eight melodies that fall in the liturgical calendar as the chants that lead us from Advent to Christmas. Each verse of the famous hymn “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” features text from one of these antiphons. The polyphonic pieces that followed the chants employed material associated with the O Antiphons. Jacob Obrecht’s Factor Orbis quoted two antiphons, as well as a plethora of other texts and tunes, including a secular one bound to please the composer’s patron. Josquin Desprez’s O Virgo Virginum setting focused on just one antiphon, the eponymous eighth chant reserved for Christmas Eve in the Medieval Church (most denominations have since winnowed the number of O Antiphons from eight to seven in their respective liturgies). A six-part motet, O Virgo Virginum features stirring antiphonal passages for two trios and a veritable tapestry of interwoven short melodic motifs sung against the chant. Ave Maria gratia plena, by Antoine Brumel, was sung by three of the women of Blue Heron, providing an attractive timbral contrast to the preceding male-dominated selections.

 

In the Christmas section of the concert, split among the two halves of the program, the five-voice motet O admirabile commercium/Verbum caro factus est by Johannes Regis served as a centerpiece, with two other pieces that emulated it presented as well: the aforementioned Obrecht motet, and Brumel’s Nato canunt omnia. Like Factor Orbis, the other two motets featured multiple texts, chants, and interwoven melodies. Blue Heron presented these mélanges of material with enviable skill, allowing the complex counterpoint to come through with abundant clarity.

Scott Metcalfe. Photo: Liz Linder.
Scott Metcalfe.
Photo: Liz Linder.

To celebrate New Year’s Day, nobles from Fifteenth century French and Burgundian courts exchanged lavish presents, including commissioned vocal works. In a section spotlighting these gifts, called estraines, the audience was treated to an assortment of chansons by Dufay, Nicholas Grenon, Guilliame Malbeque, Baude Cordier, Johanna Tinctoris, and Gilles Binchois. For these selections, instrumentalists joined Blue Heron: Metcalfe playing harp, Laura Jeppesen vielle and rebec, and Charles Weaver lute. The variety of textures obtained by the various ensemble groupings in this section of the program was lavishly multifaceted.

 

Likely the earliest of the selections on the program (apart from the encore), Johannes Ciconia’s Gloria Spiritus et alme was redolent in Lydian cadences. The resulting raised fourths and heightened sense of dissonance gave Blue Heron the opportunity to show off their use of just intonation in particularly splendorous fashion. Chords shimmered and melodic lines underscored the slightly unequal nature of the temperament’s half steps. It made for an extraordinary sound world. On the other end of the chronological spectrum, Adrian Willaert’s Sixteenth century motet Praeter rerum seriem featured seven-voice counterpoint. The thickened textures contained chant in a three-voice canon and sumptuous doublings of chord tones from the other four voices. The performance was truly transportative. As Metcalfe’s informative program notes pointed out, the piece’s seven-voice texture had another component of showmanship besides the obvious requisite compositional virtuosity: it contains one more voice than Josquin’s motet on the same text.

 

The concert ended with an encore from the Fourteenth century: Laudemus cum Armonia. The entire cohort of musicians raised their voices in song, making a most thrilling sound. It was an impressive end to a superlative performance.

_________

The next concert on Music Before 1800’s series is on Sunday, January 15, 2017 at 4 PM, when baritone Jesse Blumberg joins instrumental ensemble ACRONYM in a program devoted to music by Johann Rosenmüller. Blue Heron returns to Corpus Christi on October first: the week before my birthday. I certainly plan to make it my business to hear them again.