The Vocal Ensemble Amacord Brings Passion to Motets and Masses by Josquin des Pez in La Jolla

On Sunday, the much lauded German vocal ensemble Amacord sang a concert devoted exclusively to the sacred music of Josquin des Prez at La Jolla’s St. James by-the-Sea Episcopal Church. Celebrated as the greatest composer of his time—Josquin’s dates are 1450 to 1521—he set the standard for both sacred and secular music for the entire Renaissance period.

Amarcord [photo (c.) Anne Hornemann]

Amacord fashioned a program of music dedicated to the Virgin Mary and to movements of the Mass Ordinary based on Marian themes. Inasmuch as the cult of Marian devotion in the Western church had reached its zenith in the century in which Josquin was born and thrived, it is hardly surprising that the composer was drawn to these themes. The celebrated motet “Ave Maria . . . virgo serena” with its serene, slowly developing contrapuntal texture capped by elegant canonic writing opened Amacord’s program. A glowing account of the Gregorian Marian hymn on which Josquin constructed his motet followed. To perform this chant, tenor Robert Pohlers and baritone Frank Ozimek gently intoned this chant in the center of the chancel while the other singers, tenor Wolfram Lattke and basses Daniel Knauft and Holger Krause, processed into the nave singing a quiet drone that gently sustained the hymn.

The five sections of the Mass Ordinary were covered with movements selected from three of Josqun’s most celebrated mass cycles: Missa Ave maris stella, Missa de Beata Virgine, and the Missa Mater Patris. The Kyrie from Missa Ave maris stella proved notable for the low center of gravity of its counterpoint, suggesting the humility of its text, a plea for divine mercy. In the Sanctus and the Credo from Missa de Beata Virgine, the singers developed a fuller, brighter sound as Josquin’s themes embellished the tenets of the faith, except for the phrase “Et incarnatus es,” where the composer immediately simplifies his texture in symbolic musical genuflection.

In a clever way, Josquin painted himself into the poetry of his motet “Illibata Dei virgo nutrix” (“Virgin nurse of God”) with an acrostic that spelled out his name with the initial letter of the first word of the opening 12 lines of the text. The motet is constructed as a chain of charming duets among its 5 voices that finally climaxes in a bright texture of all five voices proclaiming “Hail Mary, mother of virtues.”

Amacord capped its rich Josquin tribute with a compelling presentation of his motet “Salve Regina,” based on the traditional Gregorian chant associated with this text.

Granted it took much scholarly acumen to construct this program of early Renaissance music, but there was nothing academic about Amacord’s passion and the stirring resonant ensemble these singers brought to this repertory.

This concert was presented by the San Diego Early Music Society on April 14, 2024, at La Jolla’s St. James by-the-Sea Episcopal Church.

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