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Hyperion Records

CDA67658 - Monte: Missa Ultimi miei sospiri & other sacred music
Winter by Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1527-1593)
Private Collection, © Agnew's, London / Bridgeman Art Library, London

Recording details: August 2007
Wallfahrtskirche, St Wolfgang bei Weitra, Austria
Produced by Stephen Rice
Engineered by Markus Wallner
Release date: May 2008
Total duration: 56 minutes 4 seconds


'The music is beautifully performed and well worth a listen; Monte's settings are full of variety and fruity chromaticisms, and Cinquecento more than does him justice' (Choir & Organ)

'Their performances make it clear that Monte is a composer of distinction' (BBC Music Magazine)

'An enticing snapshot of [Monte's] musical personality. Detailed word-painting and an imaginatively dramatic response to his texts' changing moods are displayed in pieces such as Ad te levavi and Miserere mei' (The Daily Telegraph)

'An impassioned and beautiful performance by Cinquecento … the exceptional blend of voices and unified approach to phrasing augur well for their future as great interpreters of Renaissance music … a marvellous affinity for Monte … they have no need of a conductor to achieve lovely long phrases full of warmth and life … the individual voices are all lovely, and the countertenors float above the texture without dominating it' (Early Music Review)

'An unusually gifted ensemble, both vocally and musically … here is a group whose tone, vocal flexibility, collective and individual musicianship and commitment to their chosen repertoire places them at the very forefront of modern-day specialists in the performance of Renaissance vocal music … a disc which is not only a real treat to the ears but a most valuable and worthwhile exposé of little-known repertoire … unfailingly compelling and absorbing performances … it is the Mass which, at 25 minutes, dominates the disc and shows most obviously the many strengths of this outstanding vocal ensemble … at the start of the Kyrie, for example, we have a layered texutre the subtle balance of which, while seeming entirely natural, must have taken a great deal of effort to achieve. As it unfolds there is the impression of clouds parting to reveal a vast landscape as viewed from a montain top, a sense of spaciousness and a grandeur which is profoundly moving. This is a veritable jewel of a disc' (International Record Review)

'Beautifully blended sound by a young pan-European vocal sextet, rich with character and individuality in rare 16th-century polyphony' (Classic FM Magazine)

Missa Ultimi miei sospiri & other sacred music

In their third disc for Hyperion, the acclaimed vocal ensemble Cinquecento continue their exploration of the rich repertoire engendered in the Habsburg court. The prolific composer De Monte, Kapellmeister to the Emperor Maximilian II, wrote over a thousand madrigals as well as hundreds of sacred works, and the expressive aspects of the madrigal infuse his sacred music delightfully. His Missa Ultimi miei sospiri contains the constant interplay between groups of voices and dramatic word-setting which are features of the madrigal genre. The motets recorded here cover many Biblical and liturgical subjects and demonstrate the wide range of techniques and styles used by the composer.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Philippe de Monte was one of the most extraordinarily prolific composers of the Renaissance, perhaps of all time. Certainly in the madrigal genre he outstripped all competition, with no fewer than thirty-four books published between 1554 and his death in 1603, containing over a thousand individual pieces. While his sacred output is less voluminous, it is nonetheless impressive, with thirty-eight Mass settings, approximately 250 motets, and 144 madrigali spirituali.

Born in 1521, Monte appears to have been a choirboy at the church of St Rombout in Mechelen. He worked in Italy for several periods, including a spell as music tutor to the Pinelli banking family in Naples. In the 1550s he was associated with the chapel of Philip II of Spain, visiting England in that capacity for the wedding of Philip to Mary Tudor; his meeting with William Byrd on that occasion probably led to an exchange of eight-part motets between the two composers in which they bemoaned the fate of Catholics in England (Monte: Super flumina Babylonis; Byrd: Quomodo cantabimus). But it is for his thirty-five-year tenure of the post of Kapellmeister at the Austrian Habsburg court that Monte is best known. Employed by Emperor Maximilian II in 1567, he remained in Habsburg service for the rest of his life, despite a change of emperor (Rudolf II ascended the throne in 1576) and his own requests from 1578 onwards for permission to retire. His work is described in Grove’s Dictionary as ‘unfold[ing] in unhurried, sometimes quite melismatic lines, [with] little evidence of post-Tridentine concerns about textual clarity’. As will become apparent from this recording, such a broad statement covers considerable variety in techniques and in atmosphere.

The madrigal Ultimi miei sospiri by Philippe Verdelot is among the finest and best-known secular pieces of the earlier part of the sixteenth century. As one of the early pioneers of the madrigal, Verdelot was also among the first to compose examples of the genre for as many as six parts, a texture which offers significant opportunities for contrast between high and low groups of voices, or other combinations. Such techniques form a major part of the text-setting strategy of this generation of madrigalists, with the text-obscuring properties of imitative counterpoint offset by the chance to re-hear the same words sung by another group of voices. Although madrigals of the 1520s do not approach the levels of chromaticism seen later in the century, the idiom is nonetheless highly expressive, due to these composers’ command of textual accent (impressively, since the majority of them, including Verdelot, were not native Italian speakers), and of tessitura. An instance of the latter is found in Ultimi miei sospiri at ‘Dite, o beltà infinita’ (‘Speak, O infinite beauty’) where the change of voice from narrative to interlocution is marked with a new entry on the highest pitch yet heard. Verdelot’s artistry is again observable towards the end of the piece where the long notes of ‘Tornat’in me’ (‘return to me’) appear to be guiding the music towards a peaceful ending, but a final effort at energetic movement is made on ‘ch’io non vorrò morire’, as the narrator rages against the dying of the light.

Such recognizable musical characteristics made Verdelot’s madrigals (and indeed motets) eminently suitable models for the imitation Mass genre that dominated the later sixteenth century. As formulated by the theorist Pietro Cerone, writing in 1613, the essence of this technique is to transplant sections of polyphony into crucial moments of one’s Mass setting, more or less in the order that they appear in the model. This represents only part of the spectrum of borrowing techniques used in the century preceding Cerone’s remark: thematic transformation, juxtaposition of polyphonic sections in quite different ways, recomposition of imitative counterpoint, all found their place in the sixteenth-century imitation Mass. Monte’s technique in his Missa Ultimi miei sospiri does however resemble that described by the theorist: each Mass movement begins with a version of the madrigal’s opening, albeit slightly varied. Elsewhere he is relatively sparing in the use of borrowed material: examples include ‘Domine Deus’ (‘Lord God’) in the Gloria, which adapts ‘Dal tuo fedel’’ (‘that your faithful one’) from the madrigal, and ‘per quem omnia facta sunt’ (‘through him all things were made’) in the Credo, taking the phrase ‘Gitene ratt’in ciel’’ (‘go swiftly to heaven’). This latter phrase is also recast in triple time to form the basis of the Osanna.

In common with many of his contemporaries, Monte divides his Mass movements into formal subsections. The ‘Et incarnatus’ section of the Credo is one example: here the solemnity of the words is underlined by a full, slow chordal texture, followed by a brief upper-voice section for the ‘Crucifixus’. Another division separates the Christological section of the Credo with that dealing with the Holy Spirit and the Church: the latter is notable for its syncopated figures, a compositional device that adds to the vigour of this largely joyful final section. It also injects a certain madrigalian feeling to the movement, though such syncopation is in fact absent from Verdelot’s model.

Turning to the motets, Gaudent in caelis animae Sanctorum combines a paraphrase of a plainsong antiphon (for the Magnificat at Second Vespers for the Common of Two or more Martyrs outside Eastertide) with canonic treatment: the chant melody is imitated at the interval of a fifth by the second lowest and second highest voices, though others also follow its contours. The use of the chant in two—occasionally more—voices thus reflects the number of martyrs celebrated, and their canonic relationship suggests God’s law linking them. The melody as reworked by Monte is similar to that in use in Habsburg territories in the sixteenth century, as preserved in a 1519 antiphoner from Passau: its canonic treatment necessitates several variations, however. The element of rejoicing is provided by the vigour of Monte’s rhythmicization of the chant melody, together with its intrinsically ‘major-key’ modality. The motet ends with a reference to the saints rejoicing without end, a point subtly underlined by the reluctance of the highest voice to make its cadence until after the other five have arrived on the final chord.

In Fratres, ego enim accepi, Monte brings together two texts from different sources to create a somewhat unusual amalgam: a part-Biblical and part-prayer motet. The first section sets words of St Paul to the church in Corinth, which echo the Words of Institution of Communion from the three synoptic Gospels; the second, a fourteenth-century antiphon, focuses attention on the transubstantiated bread itself and thus indicates the suitability of the piece specifically for the feast of Corpus Christi. The two halves of the motet are quite strongly differentiated, with the Biblical story—even its most sacred words—being treated as a pacy narrative, whereas the antiphon text ‘O how sweet, Lord, is your spirit!’ is significantly calmer and more mellifluous. The effect is of the fourteenth-century words, still by no means antique in Monte’s day, acting as a commentary or gloss on the scripture. Notable text expression in the first part includes the use of rapid notes for the word ‘fregit’ (‘broke’), perhaps symbolizing the action of bread becoming crumbs, but referring also to the music-theoretical concept of small notes as ‘broken’ or (in early modern English parlance) ‘cracked’.

The most striking feature of Ad te levavi is the wide leap assigned to the highest voice to illustrate its opening phrase, ‘I lift up’; this octave leap is not in fact very easy to work with contrapuntally, so Monte allows the other voices to leap through smaller intervals. The piece is highly dramatic throughout, however: the setting of ‘Miserere nostri, Domine’ (‘Have mercy on us, O Lord’) features an unusual variety of chords, as if the suppliant soul were twisting and turning in an effort to attract the attention of the Creator; later, God is invited to do good to those of pure and upright hearts, with diatonic chords representing their orthodoxy. The motet as a whole is pungent and memorable in its musical language. Similar techniques of text setting are to be found in Ne timeas, Maria, a paraphrase of the Annunciation story from St Luke’s Gospel. At the beginning of both sections of this motet, Monte combines a long-note figure with a much more active melody, giving the music a sense of the certainty that the angelic visitor imparted, with the joy that Mary expresses as she learns of her divine purpose. The two melodies can thus be seen as bringing together the heavenly with the earthly. Later, Mary asks ‘How can this be, Angel of God, since I have not known a man?’ (‘Quomodo fiet istud, Angele Dei, quia virum in concipiendo non pertuli?’); the voices come together for a rare moment of homophony, as Mary addresses the angel directly, and Monte adds a harmonic twist to underline the significance of the dislocation between the humanly possible and the agency of God.

In terms of notated length the shortest work on this disc, Miserere mei, Deus is note for note the most dissonant. That this should be so is not altogether surprising when one considers the opportunities for expressive dissonance offered—to composers of the Renaissance and many other periods—by penitential texts. Peculiar to Monte’s setting is the speed with which he creates the mood—the beginning of the second bar has a harsh suspension between the two highest voices, but even before that the syncopation and descending scale of the top voice indicate penitence—but also his ability to change the mood gradually yet unmistakeably. A case in point is the phrase ‘et in umbra alarum tuarum sperabo’ (‘and under the shadow of your wings I shall hope’), where the prevailing sonorities of D minor, A minor and G minor from the first section eventually yield to F major, prepared by a long pedal on C. (This is not to say that Monte or his contemporaries thought in terms of modulation as did later composers; the effect of opening out into a new territory is clearly present, however, underlined by other devices such as increasing rhythmic vitality.)

The short setting of the ablution antiphon Asperges me, Domine is a liturgical work, designed for use in the penitential rite that begins (or, strictly, precedes) the Mass. The antiphon, whose words are taken from Psalm 50, is intoned in plainsong, as are further words from the same Psalm and a doxology, the five-part polyphony following each intonation. The tradition of setting the Asperges me polyphonically is most notable in Spain; Monte’s setting differs from the majority of its Spanish cousins by virtue of its somewhat more distant relationship with the plainchant.

By contrast, Monte’s setting of the Magnificat in the sixth tone is, like most such canticles of this period, heavily indebted to the recitation tone to which the odd-numbered verses are chanted. Since the sixth tone begins on F, has its medial cadence on A, and returns to F at the end of the verse, the tonal outline of the polyphonic verses is in most cases similar to this template. The first verse gives a clear example, with the highest voice singing a slightly decorated version of the tone which cadences ‘in the minor’ at ‘spiritus meus’, then returns to the ‘tonic’ the first time this voice sings ‘salutari meo’: following this, the tenor repeats the chant phrase while the other three voices elaborate around it. The next two polyphonic verses adopt very similar strategies, but with markedly different textures, especially ‘Fecit potentiam’, where the opening phrase ‘He has shown the power’ is expressed with forceful chords. More variety is evident in the final two verses, where ‘Sicut locutus est’ is reduced to three voices by the omission of the highest, and the doxology breaks into a more expansive style, with running quavers to create a suitable climax. The entire Magnificat is extremely concise, yet displays a mastery of many polyphonic techniques in an idiom that is overall somewhat conservative—a microcosm of Monte’s compositional output, one might say.

Stephen Rice © 2008

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