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Adrian Willaert is one of the last great representatives of the Franco-Flemish school of polyphony. It is not fully clear where he was born, probably in Bruges. That would be supported by the fact that one of his motets on this disc, Laus tibi sacra rubens, was written for a liturgical ceremony in Bruges during Willaert's visit to Flanders in 1542. At that time he worked in Italy, where he started in 1516 - probably even two years earlier - as a singer in the service of Cardinal Ippolito I d'Este of Ferrara. In 1520 the Cardinal died and Willaert entered the service of Duke Alfonso d'Este. The connection to Duke Alfonso seems to have lasted well after his departure for Venice, where he became maestro di cappella at San Marco in 1527. Here he played a crucial role in the establishment of the technique of cori spezzati.

This recording doesn't include any specimens of this polychoral style. Here it is in particular the features of the Franco-Flemish school which are put in the centre. In many pieces Willaert makes use of the canon technique. In the Missa Mente tota all sections even contain a double canon. In Quid non ebrietas, which is written on a text by Horace, he plays a game with the singers in his use of musica ficta. Although he wasn't a pupil of Josquin Desprez he was clearly influenced by him. His admiration is expressed in the mass which is based on Josquin's motet Mente tota which is the fifth from his cycle Vultum tuum deprecabantur and which opens this disc. It is assumed to be an early work, probably written in Rome in 1514/15.

Verbum bonum et suave also reflects Willaerts admiration for Josquin. This motet was even considered a composition by the great master himself, until Willaert revealed his authorship. The misattribution is understandable as it audibly refers to Josquin's famous motet Ave Maria. O iubar, nostrae specimen salutis is a hymn for the Holy Shroud in which the number of voices varies from two to six. In some of the stanzas the content is illustrated by the use of the lower voices. Laus tibi, sacra rubens is on a text by Stephanus Comes (1494-1544) and celebrates the Holy Blood, a relic of which was kept in Bruges. Creator omnium Deus is a setting of a text from the second book of the Maccabees, one of the Apocrypha of the Bible. The words "terribilis et fortis" (fearsome and strong) are singled out in a very evocative way.

The programme ends with one of the pieces which were written at the occasion of Willaert's death, reflecting his great reputation. Cipriano de Rore, also from Flanders, who succeeded him as maestro di cappella at St Mark's, wrote Concordes adhibete animos. It is not a lament, but a rather joyful celebration of Willaert's life. One of the voices sings as a soggetto ostinato: "Vive Adriane decus Musarum, vive Adriane" (Live on Adrian, glory of the Muses, live on Adrian).

The ensemble Cinquecento has a preference for lesser-known repertoire, as its previous recordings show. Although Willaert was one of the main composers of the 16th century, he is not that well represented on disc. Therefore it doesn't surprise that most compositions on the programme have been recorded here for the first time. Cinquecento's previous recordings have all made a very good impression. These performances are equally satisfying: the interpretation has a very natural flow, as if the music was written with this ensemble in mind. The blending of the voices is immaculate, and there is an excellent balance within the ensemble.

The only questionable aspect of this recording is the pronunciation of Latin. It is rather odd that in the mass the pronunciation is Flemish - which is quite close to the French pronunciation -, although it was very likely written in Rome. In the motet Laus tibi, sacra rubens, on the other hand, the pronunciation is Italian - but it was composed during Willaert's stay in Flanders. I don't understand the reasoning behind this.

But this shouldn't hold anyone back from purchasing this dics. It is a worthy tribute to one of the great masters of the polyphony of the renaissance.

Johan van Veen (© 2011)