You gotta be somebody to have a lament written in your honor by none other than Josquin Desprez. And Johannes Ockeghem certainly was somebody–one of the greatest of the Franco-Flemish composers of the 15th century. His masses and motets are among the most splendid examples of vocal writing to be found anywhere–beautiful, expressive, and masterfully constructed to maximize the textual meaning with consistently well-formed and ingeniously varied melodic material robed in ravishing harmonies. Although the motets are usually cited as containing his most impressive work, just listen to the Benedictus and Agnus Dei of this Missa Ecce ancilla Domini and see if you don’t agree that this is about as good as it gets for music of this type. In addition to the rest of this exquisite mass, we also get to sample the fine motet Intemerata Dei Mater and Ave Maria, followed by works of two of Ockeghem’s illustrious younger contemporaries, Jacob Obrecht and Josquin. Obrecht’s Salve Regina is nothing less than magnificent–in length (nearly 12 minutes)–and in the richness of its material and facility of its development. As for Josquin’s “Déploration”, his lament “sur la mort de Johannes Ockeghem”, it threatens, in only five minutes of music, to overshadow everything that’s come before, so sublime are its melodies and refined yet fluid its harmonic and rhythmic movement.
Of course, the vocal ensemble The Clerks’ Group knows good material when it sees it, and to that end has recorded several discs (nine, including this one) either entirely dedicated to Ockeghem’s music or containing at least one of his works. This one is a re-release of a disc the group made in 1993, and it closely joins two new ones issued within the past year, all on ASV. (The others feature the masses L’Homme Armé, Au Travail Suis, and three- and five-part Sine Nomine, and several motets.) One of the beauties of these recordings–and there are many–is that they were made in the same location and thus there is consistency of sound; another is the fairly consistent lineup of singers, who also happen to be some of the best ever to perform this repertoire. You’ll recognize many of the names–sopranos Carys Lane and Rebecca Outram and tenor Matthew Vine, familiar from their appearances with The Sixteen; countertenor Robin Blaze, who now has a successful solo career; and conductor/bass Edward Wickham, who proves his affinity for this music with these deeply felt, technically impeccable, sonically sumptuous readings. The ensemble sound is ideally balanced, and the voices overall are warmer and rounder of tone than either The Sixteen or Tallis Scholars (the latter of whom have their own outstanding recording containing Ockeghem’s mass Au travail suis on Gimell). Although Ockeghem hasn’t exactly been ignored on CD, you certainly will find no better performances than these by The Clerks’ Group–and we can hope that this ensemble is far from finished with this deserving composer and very rewarding music.