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De la Rue at Mauerbach


Quite by chance I took with me to Mauerbach Don Greig’s Time will Tell. It’s essential reading for anyone in our business – written by someone who’s lived the life (unlike so many authors who’ve ventured into music but merely observed it). The dreadful banality of the touring life is there in all (or some) of its grisly detail, but it’s tempered with acute observations about performers, musicologists and the relationship between the two. He makes the point that we all invent a fantasy version of the past, and he does it himself with Josquin and Ockeghem (the former a prick, as he puts it, the latter almost a saint).  If you like Josquin you have to wait till the end before reclaiming your equilibrium, but his Ockeghem is the treasure we’d all like him to have been. I’m not going to reveal the plot, but it’s exquisitely put together and it was the perfect accompaniment to the Sound & Fury recordings even though rather than Ockeghem we were doing Pierre de la Rue this time.


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The second recording day at Mauerbach, followed by the usual late evening concert, was his Requiem (you can see it on YouTube here). The basses are required to go down to a notated B more than two octaves below middle C. We did it a half step higher but mainly for my benefit to make the line just singable within notated extremes. With Wilhelm Schwinghammer (fresh from Bayreuth) on the bottom we could probably have transposed it down. The other three masses – Ista est speciosa, Pascale and L’homme arme were all new to me. As with every mass of the period they all have stunning Agnus Dei’s. I’m not sure why this is: they often add an extra voice or go way beyond the cantus firmus; it’s as though the key bits of text (‘miserere mei’ and ‘dona nobis pacem’) really meant something to the musicians, having spent most of the rest of the mass just being very clever. It’s particularly characteristic of the L’homme arme masses – perhaps they were into irony as well – and the De la Rue is no exception. The Requiem though must rank as one of the most heart-rending of them all.  The Agnus is always the last movement to be recorded, and comes at a point where you know the music inside out but are also very tired after a day’s intense concentration, and that final effort always brings with it a sense of completeness and release.



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Mauerbach seems to exist in a different reality altogether. I find myself writing the same thing each time and taking the same photos over again. It’s partly that time seems to stop once we enter the cloister. In our monastic cells it’s not only totally quiet, but when you turn the light out at night it’s pitch black. There’s the forest to walk in during the breaks – beautiful tall beeches now golden in the autumn sun, and the five minute walk to breakfast if you get up in time (which I mostly didn’t). But we see no one else – no tv or internet. The focus is totally on the music, and the rest is a kind of recharging of the soul.

Something else Don Greig gets right is the singers’ reluctance to refer to the music after a concert. The American musicologist is baffled by the fact that they just go to the pub and seem to be unaware of what they’ve just done. This is a hard thing to explain but it’s universally true. We’ve all been singing this music or something like it since childhood and it’s in our blood. The strange public intimacy of ensemble performance is the one thing we all have in common, and if you haven’t been there you can’t really get it; if you have, the last thing you want to do is talk about it.


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