De Manchicourt: Missa Reges terrae

The Choir of St Luke in the Fields, David Shuler conductor
65:44
MSR Classics MS 1632

An entire decade ago The Brabant Ensemble released a fine recording of a mass and motets by the French composer Pierre de Manchicourt (c. 1510-64), since when there has been little more than a trickle of his music on disc. This is a shame, because he was highly regarded in his own day, and the music is of the highest quality amidst that generation of composers between Josquin and Palestrina which is coming to be recognised as conceding little in quality to those two better known bookends, besides influencing the likes of Tallis and even Byrd. Now appears another disc of another mass by Manchicourt, plus five motets, sung by a choir based at a church in Greenwich Village, New York – not their first CD, but their first focusing on this repertory. Carrying on the good work of their Brabantine predecessors, it is stunning.

For a start, the programming is sensible and illuminating, underscored by some outstanding sleevenotes. The choir begin with the motet by Manchicourt himself on which he based his mass. The motet Reges terrae  has already been recorded by some of the usual suspects – Huelgas Ensemble, The Sixteen, Nordic Voices – but surprisingly this is the premiere recording of the mass, and it is every bit as magnificent as the motet on which it is based. There are examples of relatively dull models inspiring fine masses, and masses failing to do justice to the models on which they are based, but both these works are outstanding. The four motets that follow – Caro mea, Ne reminiscaris, Vidi speciosum  and Regina caeli  – all maintain that excellence as music. It is invidious to select one for particular attention, but Caro mea encapsulates that which is best in Franco-Flemish polyphony, within an intense five minutes.

The mixed professional choir sings two to a part. The acoustic is generous. David Shuler adjusts his tempi sensitively in relation to the number of voices in play and whether the music at a given point is polyphonic or homophonic, complicated or straightforward. The individual singers give their lines clarity but blend well. And finally, conductor and choristers perform with conviction, letting Manchicourt’s heavenly music sing for itself.

The British distributor for the disc is Classic Music Distribution, and the record can easily be obtained via Amazon – my copy arrived within a few days. This CD is one of many recent examples of American ensembles recording neglected European Renaissance repertory. My recent article “Two Invisible Songs by Byrd” in the current number of Musical Times  features two songs uniquely recorded by the Annapolis Brass Quintet in arrangements totally true to the originals. Similarly, the American Horn Quartet is responsible for the unique recording of A feigned friend  from Byrd’s under-recorded Psalmes, songs and sonnets  of 1611. Blue Heron have made a splash [sic] with their five discs devoted to Englishman Nick Sandon’s reconstructions from the Peterhouse partbooks. And I hope shortly to review a CD featuring a Peterhouse mass not selected by Blue Heron but recorded by yet another American choir, as their first ever commercial recording. Meanwhile buy this disc with confidence – not least because these fine performers deserve support for recording this glorious repertory.

Richard Turbet