The human voice doesn’t evolve the way woodwinds, strings and brass do; in vocals, there are no “period instruments.” But the eight male singers comprising the Dutch group Cappella Pratensis have found another way of taking us back to music’s distant past.
The Franco-Flemish composer Josquin des Prez spent the last decade of the 15th century in Italy, for a time in the papal choir of the then-new Sistine Chapel in Rome, where he reached a peak of maturity as a composer in the new polyphonic style. The papal choir is known to have sung while gathered around a single large music stand, rather than in neat rows as choruses are arranged today. So stands Cappella Pratensis today as they present des Prez’s sacred music.
For further authenticity, upon that music stand is, when available, the music’s “original mensural notation scored in a large choirbook.” Mensural notation is the original system used to score Renaissance polyphonic music.
In those days, choral singers of sacred music in church were all male. So are the members of Cappella Pratensis, who sing all the parts – bass, tenor, alto, and soprano (or, as it was so confidently termed in Latin, superius) – two to a part when in full complement.
Completing the period evocation, the group’s concert this past weekend took place at Corpus Christi Church in New York City, a welcoming venue with good acoustics near Columbia University.
The program “Missa Ave maris stella” recreates plainchant and devotional polyphonic music mostly by Josquin in speculative but plausible sequence, evoking the “ritual framework” (as music scholar Jennifer Bloxam puts it) in which it was originally performed, in this case the Marian mass. Pieces of plainsong chant not attributed to any composer – “Gregorian chant” as it’s commonly known – alternate with polyphonic compositions by composers of the day, none of whom equalled Josquin in inventiveness, evocativeness, and harmonic beauty. Except for one work by his predecessor Guillaume Dufay, the program consists entirely of plainchant and works known or fairly confidently supposed to be by Josquin.
Led by director and superius Stratton Bull, Cappella Pratensis has a special affinity for Josquin, as evidenced by its very moniker: a Latin form of the composer’s name is Iosquinus Pratensis. The group’s exquisitely balanced, cleanly expressive sound is a thing of beauty, especially in the spacious acoustics of a good-sized church.
Plainchant passages, whether sung in a solo voice or with several voices in unison, sounded as sweetly musical as they did plainly devotional. Duet, quartet, and full octet polyphonic pieces all came across with clarity and strength, and when all eight voices joined in multiple harmonies the music felt both ancient and modern; we were in the presence of a brilliant musical mind with a timeless sensibility, brought to life by an ensemble of singers who are surely among our time’s finest interpreters of Josquin and the other polyphonists of the 15th and 16th centuries.
Rarely have I seen a concert of early music elicit as rousing an ovation as this one did. Even more rarely do I review a concert that I can recommend you listen to yourself, but I can almost do so in this case: Cappella Pratensis has recorded all this music on a CD with the same title as the program, Missa Ave maris stella: Celebrating the Annunciation in Renaissance Rome.