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The sound & the Fury

 

 

 

Mauerbach

Last week we recorded four masses by Pipelare. He was just a name in a history book to me, and the experience was a reminder of how many extraordinary composers remain to be brought back to life. Pipelare’s music is very distinctive – rich textures with the occasional bizarre harmonic twist – and recalls that of Ockeghem, whose genius is stamped on the whole period (but who has overshadowed the work of many other fine Franco-Flemish musicians).

The Sound & the Fury have been getting together to explore 15th (and some early 16th) century  polyphony since 2006. Over the years there has been some fine-tuning of the personnel, and the sound is a good deal more furious than when we first started. It’s sometimes a bit of challenge to match my wimpy English sound to that of the more robust Germans, but it seems to work and it’s great fun trying. I know of no other group that sings this repertoire with such forthrightness. It’s a totally ‘unEnglish’ approach, with highly characterised voices somehow melding together and producing incredibly dynamic performances.  If you want an analogy, it’s like painting a medieval  building in its brilliant original colours rather than the anaemic whitewash that modern ‘restorers’ prefer…

Until recently the CDs appeared on ORF and were only available from the ORF shop, to the great frustration of many buyers. The most recent albums are on Bernhard Drobig’s FraBernardo label, which as worldwide distribution. The first few recordings were done in Brixen (Bressanone) but the vast majority have been at Mauerbach, the huge Carthusian monastery in the Vienna woods. The discography is now well into double figures with plenty more to come. Apart from the odd plane and midsummer festivities at the local  fire station it’s completely quiet, so we have very few  interruptions. It’s a perfect acoustic, possibly helped by the fact that the church is divided into the monks’ choir and the lay brothers’ section, with the cloister in effect bisecting the building and creating a screen which doesn’t disturb the acoustic:

 

church shot

 

We stay in the original monks’ cells, very simple but with modern bathrooms, waking up to bird song each morning before walking to the nearby Schlosspark hotel for breakfast. Then we just immerse ourselves in the music. It takes less than a day to record a mass (‘live’ in the sense of very long takes and no fiddly edits), and we sometimes then do a concert of the mass we’ve worked on that day (sometimes, frighteningly, broadcast live). This time the church was miraculously cool with a scorching 35 degrees outside.

Being isolated from the real world and focusing on the music of a – usually unknown – single composer (almost always mass settings) for up to a week is an exhilarating experience. You get the adrenaline-fuelled close-to-sight-reading experience while at the same time getting to know the composer’s style and technique in increasing depth. What makes it yet more fulfilling is that the project is driven by a couple of remarkable visionaries who are not only the production team but our primary audience.

On top of all that is the mystery and magic of the place itself. It takes getting on for 15 minutes to walk all the way round the cloisters. The central garden was an orchard in the 18th  century:

 

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The smaller courtyard to the right of the church in the print above has a single tree growing in it. Its successor is still there today. You see it first, and as you get closer you smell it, and then miraculously you hear it. It’s a linden tree bursting with blossoms and buzzing with bees. The tree is silent after dark, but the scent of lime still hangs there in the moonlight.

 

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The latest S&F release, a double CD set of the Ockeghem’s Missa Prolationum and 3 versions of the Missa Cuius Vis Toni,  is available here.

It includes electronic copies of Jaap Van Bentham’s editions prepared especially for this recording.

 

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