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GRAMOPHONE (09/2015)
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Reviewer: Fabrice Fitch


The traversal of an idiosyncratic corner of 16th-century polyphony comes to an end with this double-CD, which focuses on the Masses contained in the sixth and last of this set of choirbooks from Leiden. The first CD contains two cycles, one by Pierre de Manchicourt (a composer with a small but distinguished discography) and the other by Lupus Hellinck (whose representation in the catalogue is slimmer still). This reportorial approach contrasts with the second disc, which presents a Mass by the far better-known Claudin de Sermisy, this time in the context of a liturgical reconstruction – a genre that has somewhat fallen out of fashion. Sermisy’s sacred music is so rarely recorded nowadays as to make this issue self-recommending, especially as the performance of his Mass is the most assured of the three cycles. In other ways, too, this is much the stronger and individual of the two discs, from the believable timbre of the celebrants (in tune but seeming vocally untrained) to the singers of polyphony, who sound most at ease in the two fine motets that bookend the Mass, both by more obscure, probably local figures. Finally, the responses that are interspersed in the plainsong are a welcome chance to hear a rare example of functional polyphony of this time and place being committed to paper.


The first disc finds the Egidius Kwartet and its associated College in more uncertain form. This is attributable (at least in part) to programming, for not only are the Masses by Hellinck and Manchicourt in the same mode, which induces a certain monotony; the same top note occurs repeatedly in both, drawing attention to the sopranos’ tendency to strain on that pitch. But a firmer hand on the tiller might also have kept the tempo from flagging (as in the longer movements of Hellinck’s mass, for example), making life easier for the sopranos as well. At its best, however, the choir gels well, the teething problems of the early volume all but forgotten. One might say that this final volume encapsulates the strengths and occasional shortcomings of the set as a whole, but the overall impression is still positive: how many record labels nowadays would commit to as specialised and ambitious a project as this?


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