Four weeks ago, Blue Heron’s initial “Ockeghem @600” event (reviewed here) focused on two famous composers of the generation before Ockeghem—Gilles Binchois and Guillaume DuFay. Revelatory and full of delights. Saturday’s Ockeghem outing was devoted to composers, dubbed by NES professor Sean Gallagher, the Ockeghem Five. It is easy to take for granted artistic director Scott Metcalfe’s insightful program notes (I have missed few Blue Heron concerts the past three years) and Sean Gallagher’s wonderful introductory lecture, but both are unusually engaging and make the whole Ockeghem enterprise of performing all of his known vocal works (over the next five or six years) truly exciting.
The Ockeghem (c. 1420-1497) adventure is the brainchild of Scott Metcalfe and Sean Gallagher, his former grad school professor at Harvard, who is advisor to this project and the (wonderfully engaging) lecturer for all of the concerts. The idea (in this portion) of showcasing the other, mostly unknown or direly neglected, composers of Ockeghem’s century is to shed a light on the interconnections among them, and to make it clear that Ockeghem, while the most gifted, was hardly writing in a vacuum. An enthused proponent of Ockeghem’s music, Metcalfe has argued (in a Boston Globe interview) that Ockeghem is an equal as a melodist and a contrapuntalist to J.S. Bach. “In Bach everyone has satisfying parts; they’re interesting in their own terms, but they add up to more than a sum of their parts. In Ockeghem, it’s the same.” Deploying one voice per part, Blue Heron used nine of its fabulous regulars: Martin Near and Daniela Tosic (hacheck over s, accent over c), cantus; Michael Barrett, Owen McIntosh, Jason McStoots, and Mark Sprinkle, tenor and countertenor; Paul Guttry, Steven Hrycelak, and David McFerrin, bassus. Metcalfe writes:
“One of the many mysteries of 15th-century music, [is that it is] but dimly understood nowadays. A normative scoring for a piece of music in four parts composed around the middle of the century comprises a top part or superius generally sung by an adult male using falsetto; a tenor part sung by a man of ordinary range, neither too high or too low; and two contratenors or parts written ‘against the tenor,’ one bassus or low, the other aluts or high—the former sung by a bass, the latter by a high tenor… The more one performs music from these years, the more one begins to feel that the idea of a standard distribution is an illusion….As for the songs, we don’t even have definitive answers for such basic questions as whether the composer intended the lower parts to be sung or played on an instrument, or if, if they are sung, whether the singers should sing text or simply vocalize.”
Gallager introduced this concert as a snapshot of the best-composed in music from the 30 years between 1450-1480. The five composers showcased—Johannes Regis, Firminus Caron, Johannes Ockegham, Guillaume Faugues, Angoine Busnoys—are hardly household names, but, he adds, “we’re working on it!” All five worked in three genres, setting the ordinary of the Mass, motets, and chansons, “full of longing, pain, and sorry” which he noted likened to 19th-century Lieder, with every gesture weighted and nothing extraneous.
The five-voice Clangat plebs (its text “a grammarian’s nightmare”) by Johannes Regis (c. 1425-1496), followed by Firminus Caron’s (c. 1460-75) Helas que pourra devinir (with countertenor Martin Near, Michael Barrett, whom I last saw in the Turkish ensemble Dünya, and Paul Guttry), and Ockeghem’s (Aultre Venus with Tosic, Marrett, and McStoots) was the opener.
Much of the programming for this Ockeghem marathon involves sophisticated musical sleuth-work. The results are often astonishingly beautiful. The next five pieces, rarely recorded or performed, began with Caron’s S’il est ainsi (with Tosic, Sprinkle, and McStoots) and finishing the first half, Guillaume Faugues’s (c. 1460-75) Missa Vinnus vina (sung in its entirely by McFerrin, Guttrie, Hrycelak, with McStoots singing the top part in the Kyrie I and II, Sprinkle in the Christe, and Macintosh the entire Gloria (McIntosh for the entire Gloria). All were lovely, and worth, at the very least, one hearing (I am hoping Blue Heron records all of this music eventually).
After intermission came Antoine Busnoys’ fascinating (1430-1492) O pulcherrima mulierum/ Girum celi circuivi (with Near, Jason McStoots, and Guttry). Full of rhythmic shifts ( Martin Near, Sprinkle and Guttry), this piece was, according to Gallagher’s research, most likely composed for the wedding of Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgandy and Margaret of York in July 1468. Three voices honor the bride with lines from the biblical Song of Songs, while the tenor’s lines from Ecclesiasticus honors the groom. Busnoys was represented by two more pieces, “En voyant sa dame” (Near, Sprinkle, Guttry) and the charming chanson, Je m’esbais de vous, mon cueur (Tosic, McIntosh, Scott Metcalfe on a reproduction of a 15th-century, 26-string harp).
Blue Heron definitely saved the best for last. Ockeghem’s enchanting Salve regina has never had a more ravishingly setting or performance. This performance alone would have convinced you to seek more of this OK composer.
On this night, everyone sang with praiseworthy polish, excellent pronunciation and intonation, but perhaps even more importantly, they made the best possible case for Metcalfe’s and Gallagher’s scrupulous research and abounding enthusiasm. On behalf of Ockeghem, whenever he was born, I congratulate Blue Heron once again.