The vocal ensemble Cinquecento is one of the leading ensembles in the performance of renaissance polyphony. Its recordings often focus on the oeuvre of composers who are not that well-known. They seem to have a special interest in those composers who for some part of their career were connected to the Habsburg court in Vienna. That maybe inspired by the fact that the ensemble is based in Vienna.
Johannes de Cleve is certainly a composer who doesn't make the headlines in concerts of renaissance polyphony. His name refers to the place of his birth: Kleve, today a small town in Westphalia in Germany, near the Dutch border. He seems to have lived and worked in the Netherlands in the mid-16th century, as music from his pen appears in the Leiden Choirbooks (as Johannes Cleeff) and in anthologies printed by Tylman Susato in Antwerp. In March 1553 he entered the service of Emperor Ferdinand I as a singer. At the end of the 1550s he was in the Netherlands to recruit singers for the Vienna Hofkapelle. Two volumes of his sacred works, published in Augsburg in 1559, and the large number of occasional works from his pen indicate that he was highly respected in his time. In 1564, his employer died, and Cleve moved to Graz, where he entered the service of Ferdinand's son, Karl II of Styria. Around 1568 he resigned, and returned to Vienna, where he lived for some years, before moving to Augsburg. He may have been active as a teacher there.
The present disc offers a musical portrait of Cleve, by presenting specimens from several genres to which he contributed: a mass, some motets, occasional pieces, and a work on a German text by Martin Luther. The latter is quite interesting, considering that the Habsburg emperors are generally considered pillars of the papacy in its conflict with the Reformation. However, Grantley McDonald, in his liner-notes, mentions that 'Emperor Maximilian II showed a distinct sympathy for Protestants'. Whether Cleve's composition of twenty settings of Lutheran melodies has anything to do with that, is impossible to tell. Only this particular piece was also included in his collection Cantiones seu harmoniae sacrae (1579/80), where it is the only piece in German. Es wel uns Gott genedig sein (Es woll uns Gott genädig sein) is Luther's paraphrase of Psalm 67.
The main work in the programme is the five-part Missa Rex Babylonis, one of twelve parody masses from Cleve's pen. It is based on a motet of that title by Jacobus Vaet, a Flemish composer from Kortrijk, who was in the service of Maximilian II as chapelmaster at Wiener Neustadt. Rex Babylonis is a setting of a text from the deuterocanonical part of the book of the prophet Daniel. It is the end of the episode in which Daniel is in the lion's den (which in the canonical part is a story during the reign of Darius of Persia). The motet opens with an upwards leap of a minor sixth, which returns, for instance, in the Gloria of Cleve's mass. In the motet most of the other voices sing a rising fifth; there that figure is in the bass. Also notable is a dance-like rhythm in the Osanna.
McDonald refers to similarities between some pieces by Cleve and one of his main contemporaries: Lassus. In Laudate Dominum he pays more attention to the text than was common in his time, as did Lassus. Some word-painting is noticeable in Credo quod redemptor, where the voices go to the bottom of their tessitura on the word 'terra' (earth), and then immediately rise at 'surrecturus sum' (I shall rise).
Two pieces are explicitly connected to the Habsburg dynasty. The texts of both Carole qui veniens and Carole cui nomen may be from Cleve's own pen. The former refers to Karl II of Styria, the composer's employer from 1564 to 1568. Here Cleve moves between rising and falling fifths at the entries. The latter is a lament on the death of Karl Friedrich of Jülich-Cleves-Berg, son of Duke Wilhelm the Rich and Maria of Austria (daughter of Emperor Ferdinand I), who died of smallpox in Rome in 1575 at the age of nineteen. It destabilized the entire dynasty and led indirectly to the loss of their territories in Prussia. This motet also opens with a falling fifth, which thematically links the two motets. It is based on a cantus firmus, whose melody is not identified; it has a different text, taken from the book of Job, which is often associated with funerals.
This disc once again proves that we know only a tip of the iceberg of renaissance polyphony. Hardly any music by Cleve is available on disc, which is surprising considering its excellent quality, and the importance of Cleve in his own time. Cinquecento has done any lover of this kind of repertoire a great favour by delivering such superb performances. Like I said, it is one of the main ensembles in this repertoire, and their status is well deserved. These five voices blend perfectly, and the singers show a supreme command of legato. At the same time, they do everything necessary to make sure that the text is clearly understandable, even in pieces with a dense texture. There is some fine and effective dynamic shading, and particularly crucial episodes are nicely emphasized.