Gary Higginson
MusicWeb International
July 2020

Well, here is another name new to me: another Renaissance composer from the Low countries, perhaps from Cleeves. He follows in the line of Ockeghem, Josquin and of his contemporary Lassus. Those men made a name for themselves outside their own land, in some cases in Italy but in the case of Cleve in Vienna. He was a choirboy with the Habsburg dynasty, and later (1564) was active in Graz.

Cinquecento, five men from five countries, have made a happy habit of presenting choral works by little-known and even often forgotten figures. They have come up with many gems, and here they have largely done so again.

Two of the motets by Cleve are in honour of significant Habsburgs. Carole qui veniens praises Archduke Karl. Carole cui nomen is a funeral motet sung as part of the obsequies of another Karl in 1575 after his death of smallpox. The family relationships are rather complex and interwoven.

Another intriguing piece, with the German title Es wel uns Gott genedig sein, was published in Cleve’s Cantiones seu harmoniae sacrae in 1579. It is odd because it uses a Lutheran melody of a paraphrase of Psalm 67 and can be heard throughout the parts but especially in the tenor. These Habsburgs may have been Lutheran sympathisers.

The main work is the Missa Rex Babylonis, a five-part parody mass on Vaet’s motet of the same name, published in 1568. Cinquecento recorded a disc of Vaet’s music in 2009 (Hyperion CDA67733). The polyphony is very imitative and there is little space for reflection. The same trait is found in the even more intense Gombert who may have been his teacher. Cleve spaces the entries out more. Each movement, like the motet, is marked by a rising minor sixth sometimes imitated or repositioned below as a major third. It is difficult, even after few hearings, to pick out many other similarities but certain scalic passages also seem to be related. It is good that, as is increasingly the case, the mass has been divided into multiple tracks, with, for example the Creed occupying five of the sixteen. The liveliest part of the mass is the attractive Hosannas in the Sanctus section. They fall partially into triple time but the singers seem to lose their way in the Creed and in parts of the Gloria where some possible moments of drama are overlooked. This is not too surprising, as the polyphony is a little undefined and narrow in range. It must be admitted that this is not convincingly first-rate, imaginative writing although technically flawless. But there is some gorgeous singing here and the blend of the voices is immaculate and sensitive.

Of the remaining three motets, Laudate Dominum (Praise the Lord all nations) is a curiously sober and often homophonic setting, which betrays in its cadences and some harmonies the influence of Lassus (d. 1594). Similarly, Credo quod redemptor has some quite daring moments, acting rather as madrigalian word painting. More conventional in the ‘major’ mode typical of Palestrina is Timete Dominum (Fear the Lord, you that are his saints). All of these motets are particularly beautifully performed. They also reflect the demands of the Council of Trent (c. 1570): the words should be made clearer and more obviously express the text.

Cinquecento has distinctive booklet covers. Here they favour again one of those remarkable fruit and animal heads in profile by Giuseppe Arcimboldo (d. 1592). The excellent and distinctive booklet notes have been compiled by Grantley McDonald, and two of the original printed music pages are reproduced. The editions of the music have been prepared by two of the singers, Tim Scott Whiteley and Tore Tom Denys. The recording is beautifully balanced.