endBeginning, a moving and beautifully sung meditation on grief, loss and mortality, is New York Polyphony’s debut recording for the Swedish BIS label. The group (Geoffrey Williams, countertenor; Geoffrey Silver, tenor; Christopher Dylan Herbert, baritone; Craig Phillips, bass) takes a journey through chant and polyphonic music by Franco-Flemish composers Antoine Brumel, Thomas Crecquillon, Jacobus Clemens Non Papa and Josquin Desprez, and then fast forward to a contemporary piece by Alabama-born Bucknell University professor Jackson Hill.
Brumel’s Missa Pro Defunctis opens the album, in a definitive recording of the work. One of the earliest polyphonic masses for the dead, Brumel’s setting uses the prescribed Gregorian chant tunes as an anchor for polyphonic passages. In the nearly 15-minute Dies irae (Day of wrath), the first known polyphonic setting of the sequence), chant alternates with polyphony to weave a harrowing tapestry depicting the last judgment. Difficult as it might be to follow the Brumel (I had to pause the CD and take a mental breath), New York Polyphony makes a liturgically savvy choice by chanting the Gregorian responsory Libera me (Deliver me) for the burial service. They deliver this poignant text so beautifully that you’ll be moved even if you don’t know the words. That’s true of so much of this program; you just can’t help but step back and listen for the pure pleasure of the gorgeous sounds the quartet makes.
The balance of the program is equally strong. This is the world premiere recording of Crecquillon’s four-part Lamentationes Jeremiæ (Lamentations of Jeremiah), and it’s a setting that is worthy to stand next to the finest Renaissance masters.
Clemens Non Papa’s motet Tristitia obsedit me (Sadness has besieged me) is based on meditations by the martyred Dominican zealot Girolamo Savanarola. This nine-minute journey from deep despair to renewed faith has a madrigal-like intensity that, for me, makes it the most striking work on the album.
Ralph Buxton, in his excellent liner notes, suggests the familiar Absalon fili mi (Absalom, my son), usually attributed to Josquin, might well have been written by Josquin’s contemporary Pierre de la Rue. Ultimately it doesn’t matter, because this dark-hued gem’s closing depiction of a tear-streaked descent to Hell is one of the great moments in Renaissance music, no matter who composed it.
After so much grief, the early music closes with the antiphon In paradisum (In paradise), a cathartic prayer chanted as the body of the deceased is taken to the burial site.
On Tudor City and their Christmas album, I Sing the Birth, New York Polyphony included contemporary works that reflect the sounds of Renaissance music. On Devices and Desires (an Ariama exclusive recording) they sing chants with a hip remix. OnendBeginning they sing Jackson Hill’s mesmerizing Ma fin est mon commencement (My end is my beginning), a fantasy on Guillaume de Machaut’s chanson of the same name. Fragments of the original tune are sung as waves of sound wash over them. The piece is a stunner and puts a contemporary mark on the album’s timeless themes of life and impending mortality. It marvelously underscores subject matter that is as pertinent to our lives now as it was half a millennium ago.
The quartet’s tonal beauty, impeccable tuning and razor sharp articulation is evident in every note they sing. BIS engineer Jens Brauns produced a sonically splendid album, too. The church acoustic (Länna Church in Sweden) is vividly captured with just the right touch of reverberation, but with plenty of detail. If you think European groups have hegemony in this music, listen to endBeginning to hear the next wave. Miss it at your own peril.