“EndBeginning” = ANTOINE BRUMEL

New York Polyphony
Audiophile Audition

By Steven Ritter

A rather dark program, but one of splendid conviction and excellent music.

EndBeginning” = ANTOINE BRUMEL: Missa pro defunctis; Plainsong: Libera me, Domine; THOMAS CRECQUILLON: Lamentationes Jeremiae; JACOBUS CLEMENS NON PAPA: Tristitia obsedit me-Infelix ego; JOSQUIN DESPREZ: Absalom fili mi; Plainsong: In Paradisum; JACKSON HILL: Ma fin est mon commencement – New York Polyphony – BIS multichannel SACD 1949, 67:58 [Distr. by Qualiton] ****:

This beautifully recorded disc, for which New York Polyphony traveled all the way to the Länna Church in Sweden, takes as its starting point a rather refined and concise program: grief, life, and mortality as expressed in the music of early sixteenth-century Franco-Flemish composers. Not exactly a something that would sell on even the best designed placard, is it? But nonetheless the music is interesting and slightly unusual.

The Brumel work is actually one of the earliest settings of the mass for the dead. Its setting is rather reserved, as if the composer knew that the words alone were powerful enough to convey the main message. Crecquillon (c. 1505-57) provides one of the most intriguing pieces here, four verses from the biblical Lamentations of Jeremiah, each starting with a Hebrew letter preceding each verse. The composer, a Flemish singer under the Imperial Chapel of Charles V, also uses considerable restraint in his presentation of the text, quite meditative and pensive in nature, virtually avoiding any idea of the dramatic or overly-despondent.

The Tristitia obsedit me (“Sadness has besieged me”) by Clemens non papa, is the most unusual piece on this disc. It takes two texts written by the martyred Dominican Savonarola (from two unfinished meditations on Psalms 31 and 51) which were a reaffirmation of faith after signing a false confession. The texts are juxtaposed to express despair and faith found again. The Desprez Absalom fili mi (“Absalom my son”) show three different texts referring to a father grieving over a son: David over Absalom, Job over his son, and Jacob mourning the loss of Joseph. The music is not hopeful and expresses grief the highest way possible for the time period. Finally, American composer Jackson Hill’s fantasy on a famous piece by Guillaume de Machaut ends with “my end is my beginning.”

There are also two chant pieces interspersed between the larger compositions that add continuity and connection to the program. New York Polyphony (countertenor, tenor, baritone, and bass) have been slowly garnering accolades since the group’s founding in 2006, and their blended, splendidly balanced, and well-controlled voices navigate easily through the complexities of this rather dark program, illumined by the beauty of the performances. Bis’s sound is excellent, full, and nicely balanced among the surround speakers.