Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

"Music, both vocall and instrumental, so good, so delectable, so rare, so admirable, so super excellent, that it did even ravish and stupifie all those strangers that never heard the like." - Thomas Coryat, after hearing 3 hours of music at the Scuola di San Rocco in Venice, 1608.

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Fresh chansons from another world

Johannes Ockeghem: Complete Songs, Volume 1

The chansons of Johannes Ockeghem, written in the second half of the 15th century, sound so fresh and new in this marvellous release from Scott Metcalfe and Blue Heron that the intervening centuries feel like some sort of illusion. Belying the music's "nowness", the detailed liner notes by Ockeghem scholar Sean Gallagher demonstrates the problems common to most 500+ year old music, with complexities of attribution and dating. Indeed, we're lucky that some of this music has survived at all; seven of the songs exist in only one manuscript. And Scott Metcalfe shows how difficult and problematic it is to bridge the gap between the remaining manuscripts and viable performances today. He presents evidence about the pronunciation of 15th century French, about whether certain musical parts should be vocal or instrumental, and about who should sing the high parts, a woman, a girl, a boy, or an adult man singing falsetto. Metcalfe is open about the remaining questions - "We remain unsure about all the possibilities open to singers of such parts" - but the results sound to me so outstandingly beautiful that surely he's made the correct decisions in the majority of cases. I know that I'll continue to look to Blue Heron for the most impressive music of the period.

This recording is part of Blue Heron's project Ockeghem@600, a multi-year project to perform the complete works of this great composer. It will be complete in 2021, around the time of the 600th anniversary of Ockeghem's birth.

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