Two Roads Diverged… The Far Side of ECM
Like The Da Vinci Code and any Umberto Eco book, jazz and classical music are about esoterica. They are Gnostic arts, with hidden meanings and treasures revealed over a lifetime, renewing themselves and their meaningfulness with every listening. The sound sorcerer Manfred Eicher spins alchemical magic from both musical loams on his Edition of Contemporary Music or ECM record label. Eicher takes great glee in blurring the distinction between the two genres, creating a veritable Wagnerian "music of the future. The digital environs of All About Jazz provide ECM's jazz wavelengths with plenty of illumination. This article moves a bit to the right in that spectrum, crossing the blur and addresses three roads less traveled: those of the Medieval Nicolas Gombert, the Baroque Francesco Maria Veracini, and Rolf Lislevand's modern vision of both periods.
The Hilliard Ensemble
Nicolas Gombert: Missa Media Vita in Morte Sumus
Nicolas Gombert (c.1495-c.1560) was born in South Flanders (now Northern France). He was considered one of finest choral composer of the Renaissance. Composers from this early period do not typically have household names as do composers of the Classical and later periods. Gombert represents the link between Josquin Desprez (c. 1450-1521) and Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (c. 1526-1594) most acutely in the area of choral music. A Catholic cleric, Gombert served as singer and composer in the employ of Spanish emperor Charles V. While in this capacity, Gombert was convicted of an indiscretion with a choirboy and sentenced to rowing in a ship's galley. By legend, the composer won his pardon from Charles by dedicating his Magnificat cycle to the emperor. This cycle, a motet in each of the eight tonal modes, stands as Gombert's masterpiece and is considered medieval choral polyphony at its zenith.
Gombert's style of choral composition is characterized by an almost palpable texture, given his avoidance of rests and his craggy contrapuntal style. The result is maximum density choral singing where no aural space is left unfilled. In the present recording, the Hilliard ensemble presents Gombert's six-voice motet, Missa Media Vita in Morte Sumus (1539). This motet served as the source for the five-voice Missa Media Vita (1542). While Gombert derives from his mentor Josquin, he carries the compositional complexity to the next level. This complexity contains a degree of dissonance previous not heard in a choral setting. This dissonance marks Gombert, making him sound completely unique when compared with Palestrina, Tallis, or Josquin.
The Hilliard Ensemble presents six voices sounding like a thousand. Their singing is clear, sharp, and crystalline without being dry. This motet is the music of anxious mourning and the Hilliards capture it perfectly. This mourning betrays a deep remorse borne under the mantle of great loss. I will stop short of describing this choral singing as beautiful. It is majestic, almost overwhelming in its powerful attack on the senses. Gombert doubtlessly composed this with the biblical Lamentations in mind as no other literary text could spawn such lovely grief.
John Holloway, Jaap ter Linden, Lars Ulrik Mortensen
Francesco Maria Veracini (1690-1768) was an Italian composer best known for his compositions for the violin. Veracini was a contemporary of Giuseppe Tartini, Johann David Heinichen, and the brilliant castrato Senesino, as well as Handel, Bach, Corelli, and Vivaldi. Not a household name. Indeed. But Veracini represents that class of composer that one turns two once fatigued with the more notable composers. Violinist John Holloway has already addressed Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber (1644-1704) and Johann Heinrich von Schmelzer (1623-1688), ground previously covered by Andrew Manze and Romanesca. Holloway's performances have been uniformly fine, with a sweetness and gentle disposition as opposed to Manze's enigmatic readings.
Rather than concentrate on the complete sonata from a given opus number, Holloway chooses one sonata from each of Veracini's four sets of sonatas. These four sets consist of the opus 1 (1721) and opus 2 (1744), both published in the composer's lifetime, and the unpublished Sonate a violino, o flauto solo, e basso and Dissertazioni... sopra l'opera quinta del Corelli, dating from 1716 and 1760 respectively. Vericini composed in a Vivaldian four-movement form and one should not be surprised when this music sounds very Vivaldian as opposed to Biber (1644-1704), Schmelzer (1623-1688), Holloway's previous focus. The Veracini is bright mainstream Baroque with few if any Renaissance trappings. Holloway's tone is creamy and light and his philosophy is conservative. These performances are truly superb. For the completist wishing Holloway had concentrated on a single opus, this recording is so good as to allay any such concerns. This is music to immerse oneself in.