Melinda Bargreen | 27 JUN 2022
The early Renaissance musician Heinrich Isaac (ca. 1445/50-1517) may well be the most important composer whose name is still relatively little known to many 21st-century music lovers. This remarkable new recording, Choralis Constantinus, should go a long way toward bringing the Netherlands-born Isaac’s music to more listeners. The 18 tracks here, superbly sung by ensemble cantissimo with period instruments of the Concerto Dell’Ombra, make a strong case for the beauty and merit of Isaac’s oeuvre. Varying in length from about a minute to seven and a half minutes, the works recorded here (both chant and polyphony) for voice and instruments are worthy representatives of the Choralis Constantinus, a collection of 375 motets in three volumes representing all Sundays and feast days of the liturgical year. This massive work, commissioned by the chapter of Constance Cathedral, was composed in 1508.
Isaac was a legendary figure in his era: in 1485, Lorenzo di Medici invited him to Florence, where Isaac joined such famous creative Florentines as da Vinci, Botticelli, and Michelangelo. Later, Isaac was appointed court composer by the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian; the Cathedral of Constance commissioned an extensive group of motets celebrating the feasts of the liturgical year. In the ensuing decades, however, the Reformation led to many changes in the liturgical milieu to which Isaac had made such remarkable contributions.
The performances recorded here represent only a fraction of the vast “Choralis Constantinus,” with selections representing four subject areas: “Weihnachten” (Christmas), “Maria” (the Virgin Mary), “Ostern/Himmelfart/Pfingsten” (Easter, Ascension, Pentecost), and “Konradifest” (Feast of St. Conrad). The majority (13) of the 18 tracks are world premiere recordings.
And they are splendid.
Director Markus Utz draws beautiful, nimble, clear singing from the dozen men and women of his ensemble cantissimo (three singers in each category: sopranos, altos, tenors, basses). The singers, drawn from Switzerland and Germany, are agile, accurate, and lovely to hear; not for them the often-bloodless sounds of “correct” period ensembles, but clear and beautifully characterized vocal lines that make the music arresting and individualized. Utz, a conductor/organist based at Zurich University of the Arts and a regular visiting faculty member at Yale University, founded the ensemble cantissimo in 1994 and is in regular demand as teacher/conductor from Hong Kong to Israel.
The singers are featured with four instrumentalists of the Concerto Dell’Ombra: a tenor and a bass trombone, and a soprano and a tenor recorder. The instruments provide enhancement and richer timbres to the vocal lines in some particularly beautiful ways. On Track 10 (“Resurrexi Domini”), for example, the brass instruments overlay the statements from men’s voices for an effect of high seriousness; the clarity of the women’s lines in rising melodic statements is remarkable. The singers are underscored but never overwhelmed by the winds’ accompaniment. We hear not just a wash of choral sound but an ensemble in which voices are recognizable and differently inflected, with occasional subtle use of vibrato. The effect is one of high seriousness but also of stirring beauty.
Track 8 (“Ave Maria”) opens with two male voices interweaving in and out in an inventive preamble; gradually, more voices and instruments are added as the piece grows in complexity. Lines are shaped and inflected, sung lyrically or declaimed; otherworldly lines without vibrato morph into other forms, and then in comes the cornetto. Layer upon layer is added, and the full ensemble finally draws to an apparent close – but no, male voices arise again, and the rest of the group enters for a finale.
The vocal and instrumental textures throughout the recording are consistently intriguing, and the singing is cleanly beautiful. The men’s and women’s voices rise in what is not just an anonymous wash of choral sound; the voices are recognizable and differently inflected, and some vibrato is employed as an occasional expressive device. And yet the overall feeling of unanimity is preserved.
For those who love Renaissance vocal and instrumental music, this introduction to the Choralis Constantinus will be a most welcome discovery. ■
- ensemble cantissimo [English]: ensemble-cantissimo.de/en
- ensemble cantissimo [German]: ensemble-cantissimo.de