Collegium makes sixteenth century sublime
On Friday April 29, a full house assembled in Fairchild Chapel to witness the sublime art of five Renaissance music masters. Oberlin’s beloved Collegium Musicum, under the directorship of Steven Plank, succeeded in making accessible to modern ears the music of a world very different from our own — music from 16th century Europe.
In the first set of pieces, the Collegium rendered five musical offerings to the Holy Virgin. Three polyphonic settings of Ave Maria were presented along with two Marian-themed chants, Salve Regina and Regina Coeli. The concert opened with Josquin’s Ave Maria, a piece that is well-known outside of specialists’ circles. The Collegium’s sound, marked by a free-floating treble and deep, earthy bass, is well suited for Josquin’s rich sonic architecture. After the chant Salve Regina, the Josquin Ave Maria was presented again, this time in a fuller, six-voice version. Senfl’s Ave Maria, proceeded by the chant Regina coeli, capped off the set.
The Senfl setting, picking up where Josquin left off with its six-voice palette, was the climax in a calculated graduation of intensity. The chants, interpolated with the polyphonic pieces, served to offset this contour. Senfl’s Ave Maria combined an attractive fullness of sound with ornate, honeyed lines, creating an atmosphere of jubilation.
A particularly beautiful moment in the Senfl was the back-and-forth between the words “heaven” and “earth,” represented by high and low voices, respectively. Through this back-and-forth, Senfl pleasantly suspends the listener between heaven and earth.
It is worth reminding oneself that works such as Senfl’s were borne of an age in which many artists found themselves suspended between secular and sacred allegiances. The Collegium’s penchant for striking a balance between musical restraint and freedom brings alive this tension, creating a dynamic and evocative experience for the listener.
The next set consisted of Lassus’s Missa Bell’ Amfitrit’ Altera. Known as a “parody” mass, this work took preexistent material from what may have been a Venetian madrigal. In lieu of the lost secular piece, Thatcher Lyman presented Gabrieli’s organ arrangement of Ancor che col partire, by Cipriano de Rore. Lyman, also a tenor in the Collegium, was clearly in the right mind to play Ancor. The vocal line of the piece was rhetorical and the passagework sounded as if it were improvised. The timbre of the organ at this point in the concert came as a welcome respite from the homogeneous quality of a capella voices.
The Lassus mass was the longest piece on the program. It contained some localized moments of musical interest. For instance, the words “crucifixus” and “resurrexit” were both set more visually than other words. The Lassus mass is without a doubt a masterful piece of music. Whether it succeeds in holding the interest of an audience outside of its original liturgical context is another question.
In the remainder of the program, consisting of three shorter pieces by Lassus, the group changed its semi-circular arrangement to come out in front of the audience. With the new physical arrangements, the sound changed radically, reengaging the audience for a strong finish.
Friday’s Collegium concert was successful for a combination of reasons.
The program was unified by common themes and a logical arc. The music-making
itself was energetic, attentive and sensitive. The overall feeling projecting
from the director and the group was one of love and enthusiasm.