Saturday, 16 October 2010

Alexander Agricola - Missa In Myne Zyn

Released 16th September 2010
on Ricercar

The vocal and instrumental ensemble Capilla Flamenca - literally, the Flemish Chapel - takes its name from the old sacred music of the court of Emperor Charles V. When this king left the Netherlands in 1517, he invited his best musicians to accompany him to Spain to continue a "living polyphony"

The current Capilla Flamenca recruits specialist musicians mainly from Flanders, and seeks to revive this splendid music composed in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in all its authenticity. On this recording the core group of Capilla Flamenca (countertenor - tenor - baritone - bass) is joined by additional singers, an "alta capella" (wind instruments), a "bassa capella" (stringed instruments), and an organ.

The transparent polyphonic sonority of the group springs from the interactive and creative work of the musicians. They devote themselves with great attention to the historical detail, technique and poetic interpretation of polyphonic works. From this polyphonic repertoire Dirk Snellings, in collaboration with renowned musicologists, constructs original projects, opening new perspectives.

Dirk Snellings talks about Agricola (in Flemish) along with excerpts from a performance in the Begijnhofkerk Sint-Truiden:-

A Taste of the Afterlife, review in Flanders Today by Marie Dumont.

Vocal vertigo and the mysteries of a Mass by Agricola, feature on France Musique (in French)

(review by Jean-Christophe Pucek in Passee des Arts):-

In 1998, a key recording by the Huelgas Ensemble (recently reissued in an indispensable box set) drew the attention of music lovers to a late-medieval composer who lived at the same time as the more famous Johannes Ockeghem (c. 1420-1497) and Josquin des Prez (c.1450-1521), Alexander Agricola. Since then, precious few recordings have followed in its wake; which, it is true, made abundantly clear the problems of interpretating these particularly demanding works. All the more gratifying, then, to see the release today by Ricercar of the complete Missa In myne Zyn performed by the excellent Capilla Flamenca, one of the best ensembles specializing in this repertoire.

Until recently, the life of Alexander Agricola remained, like that of many musicians from the late Middle Ages, rather obscure. We are indebted to musicologists Fabrice Fitch and Rob C. Wegman, for having unearthed archival material which enlightens us a little more. We now know that our composer was born in Ghent, probably around 1456, and not in 1446 as previously thought, based on the text of the lament Musica, quid defles, attributed by some to Juan de Anchieta (ie 1462-1532) and published in 1538, indicating he had died at the age of 60. Agricola was the natural child of Lijsbette Naps (died 1499), a shrewd businesswoman, and Heinrici Ackermann, an individual involved in shady financial dealings, whose name, nevertheless, the musician chose, in its latinized form (Ackermann and Agricola both mean "farmer"). His parents never married and apparently his mother alone bore the cost of raising her two sons, Jan and Alexander, the former being perhaps the cantor of whom one finds traces in 's-Hertogenbosch in the decades 1480-1490. Of the musical training of Alexander Agricola we know nothing. Perhaps he received the rudiments at the Church of St. Nicolas of Ghent to which his mother made a large donation in 1467. The first mention of his name is sometime in 1476, when he is at Cambrai, then we lose track of him for 15 years. One can surmise that he may have been cantor at the court of France, whose central figure at that time was Ockeghem, as we have a letter from King Charles VIII, dated 1492, in which he urges Piero de' Medici to dispatch Agricola, who had been exercising his talents in Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence since 1491, back to him immediately. It seems that the composer took his time complying with the royal order, since he first went to the court of Ferdinand I of Naples before returning to France. Apart from a brief stay in Naples again in 1494 with Alfonso II, no one knows anything of the specific activities of Agricola until August 6, 1500, when he joined the chapel of Philip the Fair, Duke of Burgundy. Many trips followed, including two to Spain, and it was during the second of these that Agricola died of a fever, in Valladolid in mid-August 1506.

The Missa In myne Zyn ("In my mind"), based on a popular song whose melody is heard only sporadically during the Mass, should probably be dated during the Burgundian period, the last period of activity of Agricola. While incomplete (the Kyrie is lost), it provides a perfect illustration of the sophistication and complexity of his music, in which we cannot detect, despite lengthy stays in that country, any Italian influence. The invention of the composer, like that of a Hieronymus Bosch in the field of painting, is abundant, as he uses his mastery of counterpoint to develop an extremely free style, where surprises abound. His highly individualized treatment of vocal lines, his extraordinary ability to vary the rhythms and melodies by using repetition or imitation, are at odds with the musical landscape of his time, occupying another dimension than, for example, the fluidity and cultivated restraint of his compatriot and exact contemporary Obrecht (1457/58-1505) or the utterly "classical" clarity of Josquin. The same quality of fantasy is found in other works available on this disc whether chansons, motets or pieces which were designed for instrumental performance.
To do justice to this repertoire, of whose requirements the description above gives but a pale reflection, one requires interpreters who manage to combine vocal mastery and freedom of tone, so as not to transform into frozen monuments works much of whose great vitality lies in their own irregularities. It is an understatement to say that the four singers (all male) of Capilla Flamenca (pictured above) are on this road. Having tackled in other recordings secular works of Agricola, they essay the Missa In myne Zyn with all the virtuosity acquired through a lengthy immersion in the composer's musical world, coupled with a superlative vocal technique - how can one not be astonished at the way they master the dizzying kaleidoscope of the Sanctus? - but also with genuine humility, which allows them, by letting themselves be transported by the inventions of Agricola, trusting in his music, to offer us the most authentic interpretation. The perfect antidote to the slick aesthetic often employed in such works, mostly by English ensembles, Capilla Flamenca do not suppress any of the coarseness of the discourse, bringing out all of its riches in an ideal balance between roughness and sensuality. Both radiant and informed, their interpretation is a great success, driven by a vision that has real consistency and an undeniable elan. The instrumental pieces are of the same stamp, and if the fact of interposing them between the different sections of the Mass may be historically questionable, they are welcome pauses for breath that allow the listener to avoid becoming saturated. Deserving of particular mention is Pater meus agricola, which anticipates the wonderful fantasies that flower a little later in the sixteenth century, and of which the three gambists united on the recording offer a splendid reading.

For enthusiasts of late medieval music, and for those who wish to discover Agricola in conditions close to ideal, I heartily recommend this recording of the Missa In myne Zyn. It confirms the excellence of this composer; and my hope is to find one day his other seven Masses interpreted as beautifully as they are here, by Capilla Flamenca, who demonstrate, disc after disc, that early music can be a reality as alive as it is moving.

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