Design by Austin Boyer
CD of the Month (Johannes Ockeghem : Les chansons)
It is astonishing and fascinating that two vocal ensembles have simultaneously recorded Johannes Ockeghem’s manageable songs and published them on CD, especially since we know this master of Franco-Flemish vocal polyphony mainly as the creator of polyphonic masses and sacred motets, and for his famous Requiem, the first complete musical setting of a funeral mass.
In the May/June issue of TOCCATA I had the pleasure of discussing the first of two albums of Ockeghem’s songs by the American vocal ensemble Blue Heron. Whereas on this recording a harp or fiddle is occasionally added as the second or third voice, the vocal ensemble Cut Circle and its founder and director Jesse Rodin have decided on a purely vocal version for their recently published complete recording of the songs on the label Musique en Wallonie.
This double album contains 20 traditional secular love songs and lamentations that can be clearly assigned to Ockeghem; arrangements of songs by Juan Cornago and John Bedyngham; Ockeghem’s lament for Binchois; and, as the opening track, the Requiem by Josquin des Prez for Ockeghem himself. Cut Circle specializes in the music of the late middle ages and Renaissance, and on this album has set itself the goal of bringing this sometimes distant music, with its great emotions, very close to us: crying and sighing alternate with sarcastic laughter and exuberant happiness.
For example, the self-destructive desperation of a line like “My only sorry is that I am not dead” seems greatly exaggerated to today’s listeners.
It is to the great credit of Cut Circle that they take this accumulation of strong feelings very seriously and do not expose them to involuntary comedy. They achieve this with great individual, expressive, sometimes idiosyncratic expression and thus give each individual song its own color and shape that does not seem monotonous for a single second. With its flexible vocal technique, the ensemble more than does justice to the vocal–technical brilliance and emotional depth of the music. Cut Circle thus clearly distinguishes itself from the traditional English choral tradition and is more oriented toward a French sound ideal.
The overall impression is rounded off by an exemplary accompanying booklet with legible, knowledgeably written texts and four-color illustrations. A big plus of this little book is the translation of the poems into four languages, so the listener can follow the content and understand the differentiated readings of the ensemble wonderfully.