New York Times, May 20, 1998

A Capella Singers Assemble To Honor A Master


The world of Medieval and Renaissance a cappella choral music has been doubly enhanced in recent years by two fine groups: Anonymous 4, composed of four women, and Lionheart, five men. Both bring tonal clarity, radiance, dead-on pitch and affecting restraint to their performances. On Friday night, with a male guest, Michael Steinberger, joining Lionheart, the two groups combined for a program at St. Michael's Church on Amsterdam Avenue at 99th Street. "Ockeghem, Prince of Musicians" was the title of the program, and the music of this 15th-century Flemish master has seldom sounded so princely. The combined sound of the two groups in the resonant church was mystical. These vocalists understand that by singing with open, focused tone and steady, unforced production, their sound will linger and resonate with haunting beauty.

The program was essentially devoted to Ockeghem's Missa Mi-Mi, which refers to the theoretical designation of the music's mode (or pretonal scale). Yet, though this music is reverent, Ockeghem was probably having some fun with the title as well. The singers interspersed liturgically appropriate plainchants between sections of the Mass and framed the whole with two motets, the "Alma Redemptoris Mater" and the "Ave Maria." To conclude, they performed Josquin's great memorial work, the "D�ploration" on the death of Ockeghem. The structure of the 75-minute program, performed without break, was musically and spiritually effective.

For listeners unfamiliar with it, Ockeghem's music may seem too severely sacred, rigorously contrapuntal and unvarying. But once you get accustomed to the surface sameness, there is an abundance of nuance and subtlety. Voices overlap in continually surprising ways, and melodic lines spin out ethereally, while the inevitable cantus firmus line in the texture keeps the music grounded and inexorable.

The singers of Anonymous 4 and Lionheart were excellent at caressing the subtleties and shaping the overlapping lines into shimmering, sensual and arching spans of modal music. They might have been pluckier about spiking the dissonances when they happen, as in the Agnus Dei section of the Mass, where the vocal lines turn increasingly jagged and the sustained intervals boldly clash.

Josquin's "D�ploration" is a grief-stricken musical setting of a deeply personal French text that sits atop a somberly undistracted statement of the Requiem text in Latin. Following the Ockeghem, the "D�ploration" sounded almost shocking, as if Josquin signaled a new era of searching expressivity and stylistic freedom, which, of course, he did.

May these two estimable ensembles sing together often.


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