Born about 1410 in Saint-Ghislain in the French-speaking province of Hainaut in Burgundy (now Belgium) and living to the unusually old age of nearly 90, Johannes Ockeghem was one of the most respected composers of the fifteenth century… Josquin set a famous poem (by Guillaume Cretin) on Ockeghem's death. Together with Josquin and Dufay he exercised a huge influence on other early Renaissance composers. Chaplain to three French kings, Ockeghem was also treasurer at the cathedral and monastery at Tours and he is known to have had a striking bass voice. His extant output is not large: a few motets, several masses, and just 20 or so secular chansons.
His style is characterized by complex, rich, meticulously worked vocal textures with emphases on the lower registers. His contribution to intricate polyphony and its integration into long lines within larger forms in particular have resulted in a perception that Ockeghem is a "difficult" composer. Another way of putting it would be that Ockeghem confounds our expectations (as, say, does Schnittke), is one of a kind (as are, say, Messiaen and Nancarrow) and not immediately amenable of the conventional analysis which applies to composers of his epoch. As the collection under consideration here shows, though, it would be a shame if such assessments were to put listeners and performers off: Ockeghem's music is also amazingly beautiful and original. It invariably conveys the spiritual uplift which most specialists agree inspired his music. Specifically it seems likely that the composer, unable to write "about" the deity in which he believed, let his music embody, reflect, exemplify the creation attributed to that deity… consonance, beauty, awe, the emergence from nothing of something substantive and infinitely wonderful.
"The Ockeghem Collection" is a reissue of five CDs (almost six and a half hours) which were originally recorded and released (also on Gaudeamus) from 1994 to 1999 by the eight strong The Clerks' Group under its founder and director, Edward Wickham. The group had made its London debut only two years before the first of these, in 1992. Their concentration on music (some of it less known and/or neglected) from the early Franco-Flemish Renaissance has made a particularly positive contribution to the world of "early" music; indeed The Clerks' Group has received several Gramophone magazine "Early Music" award nominations and the award itself ten years ago.
In this set there are eleven masses, the Requiem, and half a dozen motets… plenty to convey a sense of Ockeghem's strengths and characteristics. Discs 1, 2 and 4 have a mixture of two masses and one or more motets; disc 3 the Requiem, Missa Ecce Ancilla Domini, an "Ave Maria" and the five-voice motet Intemerata Dei mater and disc 5 four masses. Indeed the only major works missing here (available on Gaudeamus 186) are the masses on "Caput" and "Ma maistresse". In the accompanying booklet Fabrice Fitch, Rob Wegman and Edward Wickham describe each work and offer likely compositional dates and circumstances. Note that the attribution of one or two pieces (Celeste beneficium, Missa Primi toni, Gaude Maria and even the Missa sine nomine) is doubtful, though the style is Ockeghem's.
Given these key attributes of the life and output of Ockeghem, several works stand out. The Missa Mi-mi (disc 1) ranges far and wide with a logic all its own suggesting if any one piece does something of Ockeghem's confidence and certainty. A mature work, this mass is typical of Ockeghem's "irrational" style; the composer was clearly intent on exploring areas of expression which at that time had no antecedent. Similarly the Missa Prolationum (disc 1) contains musical ideas that seem to spring from nowhere and have their own sense of musical progression, driven from inside. Equally liberal and prepared for realizations in a variety of ways is the Missa Cuisvis toni (disc 4), which could be translated as "in any mode you choose". Typifying the "total sound" style of the masses from mid-century is Missa Fors seulement (disc 2) based on the composer's rondeau of the same name. Taking Ockeghem's inspiration still further is the Missa Quinti toni (disc 4), where the singers almost dialog with one another across their ranges.
The Clerks' Group sings with remarkable consistency on all of these five discs. Prominent among their characteristics are a delicacy and refinement of tone that are very well suited to the dark richness of Ockeghem. Each voice is distinguishable, has its own personality and contributes to the sense of authority and depth which mark this set. If anything, there may be detected at times (e.g. in the Missa Fors seulement, disc 2) a certain detachment which results in some hurried tempi. One might have welcomed a little more love conferred on the words. The Clerks' Group has consistency, and – obviously – extensive experience with this music. To listen to the entire collection is to be drawn into the Clerks' Group's world and to benefit from their dependable familiarity with Ockeghem. In exposing that world they do make it a rather austere and bleak one; that's surely right. Yet the production is as sharp and refined as it is bleak: the singers' enunciation and articulation are precise and pleasing. And, importantly, the Group's singers never make a meal out of pursuing accuracy.
The texts of the works presented here are not included in the booklet and the recording quality at time shows its age; though these are small cavils: this is a fine collection and one that can be safely recommended to anyone who enjoys and is inspired in many different ways and on many different levels by early Renaissance choral music. It's very reasonably-priced at the usual outlets and would form an excellent introduction to Ockeghem.
Copyright © 2007, Mark Sealey