Classical Music Review: New Releases

Pierre de La Rue - Two Masses.  Missa de Septem Doloribus beatissime marie virginis a 5; Pater de caelis, Deus a 6; Missa Pascale a 5; Vexilla Regis / Passio Domini a 4.  Ars Antiqua de Paris (Jean Nirouët, counter-tenor; Frédéric Bourdin, tenor; Christophe Olive, baritone; Christophe Lizère, baritone; Gaël de Kerret, bass; Christophe Poncet, tenor [Pater de caelis]); Michel Sanvoisin, director.  Naxos CD 8.554656 (74'41).

Pierre de La Rue (c. 1460 - 1518) was one of the remarkable generation of composers who emerged from Flanders to have an immense impact on the courts of Europe.  His contemporaries included Johannes Ockeghem (c. 1410 - 1497), Heinrich Isaac (c. 1450 - 1517), Jean Mouton (c. 1459 - 1522), and Josquin Desprez (c. 1440 - 1521).  Although biographical details are somewhat sketchy, it seems that Ockeghem taught Josquin; that Mouton, while French, emulated Josquin's style; that Isaac worked both for Maximilian I and Lorenzo di Medici; and that Josquin was Martin Luther's favorite composer (he called him "master of notes") and may have sat for a portrait by Leonardo da Vinci.  Indeed, the era of Flemish musical supremacy is often called the "Age of Josquin."  It is characterized by a rich polyphony, often based on chants (cantus firmi) inherited from the Gregorian canon.

De La Rue was born in Tournai and became attached to the Habsburg court.  He travelled to Spain with Philip the Fair in 1501 and again in 1506, where he received a commission from Joanna of Spain (l"Joanna the Mad").  His last patron was Archduke Karl, known to history as Charles V.  De La Rue was reknowned in his own time for the richness and intricacy of his counterpoint and for his use of sharply differentiated upper and lower registers (such as the opening of the Sanctus in the Missa Pascale).  The dense chromaticism and word painting of a slightly later composer such as Lassus is not present here, instead De La Rue's music is marked by clarity and openness, the effect abetted by a spare harmony which often omits one part of a triad.

Ars Antiqua de Paris has a beautiful sound and the voices blend seemlessly, especially in the lower voices.  Counter-tenor Jean Nirouët has a strong, pure, unaffected tone.  As is common in period performance these days, a single voice sings each part, giving this once regal music a quiet, personal feeling.

Tony Gualtieri
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