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22 Sep 2008
Music for the Court of Maximilian II
Although Jacobus Vaet, Antonius Galli and Pieter Maessens are little-known composers today, this impressive recording featuring their music, the debut recording by the ensemble Cinquecento, may serve as a cautionary reminder that modern familiarity is often the fruit of circumstance and not necessarily a reliable measure of artistic achievement.
All three composers were variously attached to the Habsburg court in the middle of the sixteenth century and the music of all three amply reveals both the richness of the mid-century style and the careful craftsmanship they brought to it. Cinquecento’s program is devoted to a mass and several motets from the Habsburg orbit by these three with an additional motet by Lasso. The program coheres not only through contextual proximity, but more significantly by the way the pieces reflect music’s function within a web of patronage. Some of the motets (Maessen’s “Discessu” and Lasso’s “Pacis amans”) explicitly name Maximilian, and these form a direct salute to the House of Habsburg. The text of Vaet’s motet, “Ascendetis post filium,” is dedicated in praise of Maximilian; he is not named in the text specifically, although the theme is one of monarchical succession, possibly written for his assuming the throne of Bohemia or Hungary. This salute to Maximilian is furthered in Galli’s imitation mass based on Vaet’s motet, and significantly, the salute to the patron also becomes a salute to Vaet, as well--a two-fold doffing of the compositional hat!
The performances are sublime. Cinquecento offers a sumptuous sound, exquisitely focused and yet rich in tone, as the opening motet, Vaet’s “Videns Dominus,” reveals from its very first notes. The contrapuntal style of the pieces is generally dense, although the ensemble’s lines are unflaggingly lithe, taming the density with clarity. And the suppleness of line is matched with a fluid sense of melisma, as in the flowing passage work of the “Benedictus” in Galli’s mass. Other moments are characterized by the ensemble’s finely crafted control, as in the “Et incarnatus” from the mass, or the beautiful stillness of some of the final chords.
The bass of Cinquecento, Ulfried Staber, sings with an especially gratifying sound, a delight in itself, of course, but also a sound that seems foundational for the ensemble tone as a whole. It is as though his sound is “pulled up” through the other registers, yet remains in place as both model and fundament.
The Music of Maximilian II is a splendid recording of music that is refreshingly little-known, sung with consummate skill and artistry.