This is Cinquecento’s twelfth album for Hyperion, and notwithstanding the unfamiliar repertoire here I don’t think I have heard them sound more radiant. After sixteen years they seem to be hitting their peak. There is a naturalness to the singing here which is as relaxed and instinctive as it is polished. Everything is seamless. Their sound seems perfectly tailored to the warm, rounded acoustics of the monastery at Pernegg in the far north of Austria. The clarity and unanimity of their diction is especially remarkable given their multinational line-up (the five singers featured here hail from Austria, Belgium, Britain, Germany and Switzerland), the confidence with which this hitherto little-known music emerges is testament to what must be fastidious and intensive preparation. Regardless of anything else, the new disc incorporates 71 minutes of fabulous singing.
And then there’s the music. I have never heard of Johannes de Cleve, but the story retold in Grantley McDonald’s most readable note suggests he was one of those figures (e.g. Vaet, Lassus, de Wert) who were poached in their twenties from the Low Countries to serve at the courts of the most important outposts of the Habsburg Empire. In de Cleve’s case, he followed his contemporary Vaet to Vienna and sung in the chapel of Ferdinand I. When that emperor died in 1564 de Cleve moved to the court of Ferdinand’s youngest son, the Archduke Karl at Graz before his semi-retirement through ill-health in 1570. He settled in Augsburg and continued to supply Karl’s chapel with music until his final years.
The Vaet motet which provides the source of De Cleve’s eponymous parody mass Rex Babylonis is placed at the end of the programme and at once illustrates the excellence of Cinquecento’s delivery of text. Its syllabic nature is incorporated within a span of surprising breadth and intermittent power. The motet projects the austere beauty that characterised this group’s previous forays into Vaet, notably the survey which featured the parody Missa Ego Flos Campi after Clemens non Papa.
In the Missa Rex Babylonis de Cleve samples the rising fifths and minor sixths which dominate its source and weaves them into an extended structure of uncommon coherence. While this composer’s technical prowess is unarguable, some listeners may find the whole rather lacks the dynamic variety that encapsulates the finest Mass settings. It is to Cinquecento’s enormous credit that the quality of their singing rather distracts the listener from any lingering doubts one may have about de Cleve’s limitations. The absolute security of their intonation and the sublime blend of their five voices strikes home immediately in the Kyrie and one can forgive its apparent lack of variety. If the Gloria is rather understated and austere, de Cleve’s shading is subtle and compelling. The same can be said of the Credo although it projects more in the way of textural variety and sensitivity to the text—notably in the Crucifixus and the gentle lucidity of the following Et resurrexit. The long closing Et iterum venturus est section is rich and fulfilling rather than thrilling. The Sanctus is even more uplifting, especially the gently dancing syncopations of its Osannas—the Benedictus is contrastingly reflective. The Agnus Dei is most stately and makes for a satisfying conclusion. If in the final analysis the Missa Rex Babylonis is not in the first rank of Mass settings, in a performance as distinguished and committed as this one it’s decidedly not an issue—I can hardly imagine listeners feeling short-changed.
Bookending the mass and four finely wrought motets are two unusual pieces each addressed to different ‘Karls’; Grantley McDonald speculates that the composer may have penned the texts for both these motets, given the specifics contained therein. Carole qui veniens is dedicated directly to Archduke Karl—its cumbersome language is at odds with the startling and appealing chromaticism of de Cleve’s setting. Cinquecento render the text more fluent and singable than it is. The opening bars of its second ‘stanza’ dance. Carole cui nomen is more poignant and consolatory, inevitably for what the composer described as ‘An epitaph for the Most illustrious Prince and Lord, Lord Karl Friedrich’; this ‘Karl’ died in Rome of smallpox at 19, an event which apparently resulted in constitutional mayhem for the Habsburg dynasty.
Of the four motets, perhaps most interesting is the tiny Es wel uns Gott genedig sein, employing Martin Luther’s own German text—it’s actually his paraphrase of Psalm 67. This is a busy little jewel; the ear is cleverly drawn toward the tune before it arrives while the piece as a whole embodies the sense of a final blessing, for which purpose its text was presumably designed. Timete Dominum is cool and reassuring—the resolution at the end of the first section employs piquant, alluring dissonance.
If Cinquecento’s recorded catalogue amounts to a plea on behalf of the underdog, long forgotten figures such as Regnart, Lupi, Guyot, Schoendorff and now Johannes de Cleve could scarcely have imagined such polished advocacy for their work. The group’s performances on this new disc raise the bar once more for this long unsung repertoire. The Hyperion recording is predictably unimpeachable.