There must be something special about Jacob Regnart if the marvellous all-male vocal group Cinquecento (formed in Vienna in October 2004) have again issued a disc devoted only to his music. I have yet to hear the well-received Missa Super Oeniades Nymphae from 2007 (Hyperion CDA67640). This disc has met with equally warm reception even before it landed on my doorstep.
It is helpful to hear the Eastertide hymn Christ ist erstanden (Christ is Risen) before the mass of the same name—and another post-Easter hymn Freu dich, du werthe Christenhelt before the mass based on it. These simple but memorable melodies are worth listening to a few times because both parody masses use harmonies and melodic lines which play a significant role in the hymns. It is also useful, especially for careful and attentive listening, that each mass is allotted fourteen tracks.
The masses make quite a contrast. It is fascinating to hear how the hymns are welded into the textures. The Missa Christ ist erstanden is curiously sober, especially the moving Agnus dei, considering that it is meant for Eastertide. The other mass is somewhat lighter, more lyrical and clearer in its text setting, with more homophonic passages. It also feels more compact even if its playing time is the same.
We are also treated to three motets, placed centrally in the programme. Maria fein, du klarer Schein, in honour of the Virgin, uses the ‘Maria Zart’ melody. Regnart had been successful as a composer of Italian madrigals. Rühmbt alle Werck des Herren (Praise all that the Lord has done) and Wann ich nur dich hab (When I have only you Lord God, my comfort and life) are anonymous re-textings of two of his most popular pieces, which are memorable in melody and simple in harmony.
Regnart was Flemish and worked at the German Hapsburg court in a post–Luther world. One wonders how he could write masses and motets in the polyphonic style to Latin texts. Well, the Hapsburgs were staunchly Roman Catholic and conservative. Even so, Regnart’s employer, Archduke Ferdinand II considered the German hymn tunes acceptable, and had them included in the ‘Little Catholic Songbook’, a pocket-size hymnal which he published at his own expense. The Lord’s praises can be sung, he said, in any tongue.
Regnart, who sympathised musically with earlier composers like Gombert and Lassus, fitted ideally into that profile as a devoted Catholic himself. He had moved from Prague to work for the Imperial Court in Innsbruck in 1582. After Ferdinand’s death, he moved in 1595 back to Prague to the court of another Hapsburg, Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II. He took many of his unpublished masses with him for performance at Rudolf’s Royal Chapel.
Vocal balance, an essential feature, is Cinquecento’s forte, aided here by a wonderfully clear recording. It took place in a beautiful former Carthusian monastery on the outskirts of Vienna. The venue has an ideal acoustic, spacious and intimate, and it allows for clear diction. Erika Supria Honisch’s excellent booklet essay is accompanied by all the texts. The booklet is adorned with one of those weird head paintings by Regnart’s extraordinary contemporary, Arcimboldo.