This is the fourth and latest in the excellent series of works by Jacobus Vaet, who was born about 1529. ClassicalNet has received the recent Volumes 1 and 2 very favorably. This time we also look at Volume 3. Working at the height of the Renaissance, Vaet can hold his own with his contemporaries, Lassus and Palestrina, who both outlived him: in fact, Vaet died relatively young – at about 40 years old.
Unpublished in the composer's lifetime, he wrote one Magnificat in each of the church modes. The one that occupies tracks 1 to 6 on the present CD is actually Ionian in F, not Hypolydian as one would expect from the denomination. It's a rich work; yet one that fails to cloy. Spanning the vocal range from countertenor to bass, it has a slow, comforting aura – perhaps enhanced by the imaginative combinations of solo and ensemble singing. The The Dufay Ensemble, under their director Eckehard Kiem, who has also published standard works on Vaet, are obviously at home with this mixture of styles yet bring out in the music a momentum, a sense of purpose and a calmness, that re-inforce its liturgical depths. The Magnificat is not sung in a heavy way, nor labored over. Yet all the necessary depth is present for all to hear.
Also on this CD is a selection of six Gospel Motets. That's a relatively short-lived form which had become popular in the half century before Vaet's birth. If dates of publication correspond to those of composition, the form nevertheless occupied the composer throughout his life. From the evidence on this CD (there are no others in the catalog), Vaet found this – again, gentle – way of setting Biblical texts to his liking. It needs, though, direct and uncluttered delivery. This is something which the Ensemble is more than able to deliver… singing as a group, for sure, each of their from four to six voices is clear and communicative; the articulation of the Latin simple and unfussy, neither sibilant nor over-rhetorical.
The texts (reproduced in the liner notes only in the original and German) are short; sometimes of as few as five lines. But packed with striking images and unambiguously laudatory sentiments. These require conviction and confidence to perform with meaning. Again, the eight members of the Dufay Ensemble (Kiem sings bass) are familiar with and fond enough of the music to produce vivid but very human accounts. One imagines that their spontaneity and readiness to respond to small yet extremely telling turns of phrase such as "antequam patiar" ("before I suffer") can't be far from those of contemporary performers at a time when such tropes were surely more immediate than now.
Unlike other CDs in the series so far, this has a "stability", a mildness, to it that needs to be grown into. There are livelier pieces, too: Dixerunt impii [tr.14-15] is full of passion. But the degree of rhetoric, imprecation, doubt even, could so easily have been "switched on" as in a set piece. Not here. Nothing without cause. Nothing superfluous. Nothing other than generated by the essence of the music set to transparent text. This is not excitable music by any manner of means. It doesn't aim for the rich layers of Palestrina. Yet this small and tightly-focused group of singers, by concentrating on the ways in which Vaet's own confessional honesty found its way into his music, have produced another collection of highly satisfying and beautiful unaccompanied choral works.
The acoustic, the Bergkirche in Nimburg, Germany, is resonant and liquid. A lot of thought has gone into the balance between voices – particularly to ensure that the high voices, particularly penetrating, do not overshadow the middle registers. It's a sound that will not tire, but stimulate, on repeated listening. The CD should be acquired by all those collecting the series on Ars Musici, of course. For those for whom Vaet is unknown some pleasant surprises are in store. Perhaps not so splendid as his contemporaries, nor either so florid or emotionally rich as the generation that came before him, Vaet is nevertheless a striking composer who deserves to be better known. Ars Musici and the Dufay Ensemble are doing us all a great favor in this series.
Copyright © 2011, Mark Sealey.