Design by Austin Boyer
Cut Circle Sings Ockeghem
It begins with a bloodcurdling outcry—this new complete recording of Johannes Ockeghem’s chansons. The ensemble Cut Circle arouses great emotions—and zooms us very close to a strange world.
No cell phone ringing, no car humming, not even the ticking of a clock. The stove crackled in the kitchen, the whole house smelled of smoke, and there was porridge for dinner, at least most of the time. The fifteenth century was a time of mercenaries, robber barons, and the burning of witches. The houses were cramped and dark, and outside you strapped wooden heels under your shoes to get through the muddy streets with some cleanliness. An era as distant and alien as its music.
Johannes Ockeghem was the Bach of the fifteenth century. A profound composer, plus a celebrated singer and a lovable person. He was in the service of the French kings, and he was a king himself—a king of counterpoint. Today his music is considered enigmatic and a little gloomy; it seems to us artful, cool, and intellectual. But back then, at a time when people could cry unrestrainedly after a powerful sermon, the beauty of Ockeghem’s chansons must have touched listeners deeply.
How do you transpose this emotional intensity from then to now? The American vocal ensemble Cut Circle is trying out unconventional approaches. Sometimes, for example, the six musicians stand shoulder-to-shoulder while singing, in a narrow semicircle, like medieval singers around a choirbook. In the booklet for the new double CD, conductor Jesse Rodin chooses vocabulary that would otherwise not be associated with Renaissance music: intimacy, passion, emotional outbursts. And indeed: the very first piece, Josquin Desprez’s famous lament for Johannes Ockeghem, here becomes a painful outcry that immediately gets under your skin.
No smooth echo, no amalgamation of disembodied voices, as is otherwise common in performances of this repertoire. But a split sound, in which the individual individuals remain distinguishable, also fanned out in terms of recording. Cut Circle took on all 23 chansons by Johannes Ockeghem in this way. There is no musical interpretation of the text in these pieces as there is later in the madrigal, and yet each chanson has its own emotional content, almost like a pop song of today. Whether sadness, tenderness, or anger—Cut Circle makes the emotions audible, through dynamic contrasts, flexible tempos, and changing sound colors.
Did it really sound like this at the French court at the time? Who knows! In any case, the new expressiveness, as not only used by Cut Circle, but also, for example, by the Belgian ensemble Graindelavoix, is good for the repertoire. One can almost see the flickering of the candles, hear the rustle of the robes, and feel the smell of porridge and roast. A suggestive approach to interpretation that zooms in very close to a time that is actually so far from us.