With great prescience, Regnart composed these two masses for Cinquecento to sing more than four centuries after his death. I’m slightly exaggerating the publicity claim that it’s ‘as though’ he ‘might have’ done so, but I have to admit that the music seems almost tailor-made for this distinguished group’s latest recording. Didn’t I say something very similar about their earlier offerings, including Regnart’s Missa Super Oeniades Nymphae (CDA67640)? Actually, I didn’t because Dominy Clements’ had said it all so well that I simply added a link to his review and the words ‘very fine’ in June 2011/1.
I did, however, write more fulsomely about their recording of music by Vaet, making it Recording of the Month. Ignore the reference to the inferior iTunes mp3, however; if you choose to download, do so from Hyperion in 16-bit lossless quality or superior 24-bit—even the latter, at £7.30 when I checked, is less expensive than the iTunes. The new recording costs rather more than that, but, at £8.99 (16-bit) or £13.50 (24-bit) compares not unfavourably in price with the 16-bit CD. Now that very few record companies are offering SACD—Hyperion gave up some time ago—24-bit is the version of choice for audiophiles. More recently—just months ago, in fact—they have given us a fine recording of Isaac: his Missa Wohlauff gut Gsell and other works (Hyperion CDA68337; Recommended Baroque and Before).
The new recording serves to remind us that our neat summary of the reformation, like so many aspects of history, is far from the whole picture. Regnart, a devout Catholic from the Netherlands, welcomed into the Imperial service, would not have known the two Easter hymns in German which form the basis of the two Masses here recorded. Instead, he seems to have sought them out in a collection of vernacular hymns published in Innsbruck in 1588 specifically as a reminder that pre-reformation Germany and Austria had allowed the singing of vernacular music in the liturgy.
In England the pre-reformation church was less inclined to welcome the vernacular, probably because it was associated with the Lollards, the followers of the reformer Wycliffe. Thomas More, friend of Erasmus and, like him, a liberal thinker, wasted time and ink on an angry debate with William Tyndale, whose translation of the New Testament and part of the Old would form the basis not only of the much-loved King James version but also of the Catholic Douay version.
The fact that in German-speaking areas vernacular hymns seem to have been incorporated into the liturgy means that Luther’s chorales didn’t spring up from nowhere: one of the best known because it was set by Bach, Christ lag in Todesbanden, was an adaptation of the Easter tune which underlies the first of these Masses. Regnart’s choice of these tunes as the basis of these settings may well have been a case of pinning his denominational colours to the mast. Conversely, the use of Latin in the Lutheran ‘short’ Mass on high days continued until Bach’s time and after, so sections of Regnart’s Masses could have been used in the Lutheran Hauptgottesdienst—usually just the opening Kyries and Gloria, sometimes the Sanctus and Benedictus.
The other misconception punctured here, if it still exists, is that secular and sacred music were separate things. The Council of Trent forbade the use of secular themes as the basis or cantus firmus of Mass settings, but only because it had been such a common practice: the Masses based on the English love song Western Wind are the best-known examples. Two of the pieces on the new Hyperion recording are adaptations of what Regnart had originally composed as Italian love sings, with new religious texts substituted. The technical term is contrafactum (plural contrafacta).
The hymn tunes themselves are simple affairs, suitable for congregational singing, but Regnart turns them into very fine examples of choral music; from the very first Kyrie eleison, only the opening notes of each section present the underlying tune, with the rest of the music weaving it into a fabric as complex—and fascinating—as those English masses based on the simple tune of Western Wind, or Vaughan Williams’ entrancing take on one of the simplest works that Tallis ever composed, also intended for congregational singing, from Archbishop Parker’s Hymn Book. It’s always helpful when we have the underlying tune before the music based on it, rather than after, as is sometimes the case.
Until Cinquecento and Hyperion took up his cause, Regnart’s music was almost a closed book. The Oxford Companion to Music mentions only ‘some charming songs in the style of the Italian villanella’; here they are in their contrafacta forms, providing variety in a programme devoted to his music in a higher style. Before these performers included some of the songs in their original garb in Amorosi pensieri (CDA68053) and recorded the Missa Super Oeniades Nymphae, the only substantial recording of his work that I know came from a set of his Marian motets: the Weser-Renaissance Ensemble and Manfred Cordes, released in 2000 on CPO.
I doubt that Regnart could have better advocates than Cinquecento, or ever will. To return to my opening words, the claim that they are ideally suited to this music is fully borne out by the performances, and the recording, especially in 24-bit format, and the presentation could hardly be bettered. As usual with Hyperion, the booklet, which comes with the download is an important factor in my recommendation—a few select labels match them in this, but others, contemptuous of those who buy their music, don’t think it important to include the booklet, even for music with unfamiliar texts. Lovers of the music of this period need not hesitate, especially those who have already chosen one or more of Cinqucento’s earlier recordings.