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Review: 'Extreme Singing' by Vox Early Music Ensemble


I recently purchased the Vox Early Music Ensemble’s disc Extreme Singing: La Rue Requiem and other Low Masterpieces of the Renaissance (2011). This wonderful recording is unique in a number of ways. Many of the pieces here have never been recorded untransposed, and others, such as Weerbeke’s “Stabat Mater dolorosa / Vidit Seciosam” have never been recorded at all. The unusually low bass notes of these scores have presented significant difficulties for performances, leading some scholars to believe these notes were not intended to be performed at all, or that the original scores adhered to a markedly different notion of standard pitch.

The historical debate over the appropriate pitch of these pieces is explained in lucid detail by Dr. Honey Meconi in the album’s extensive liner notes. She writes that “a number of factors suggest that the low notes were not simply Augenmusik, music for the eyes, but rather had a sounding existence as well.” She goes on to explain several factors that lend historical credence to Vox’s decision to perform these pieces as originally written. One is that Pierre de la Rue wrote for the Habsburg-Burgundian court, which was considered “one of the musical wonders of the day.” It is unsurprising that La Rue might compose some unusually demanding repertoire to show off the unique strengths of this amazing ensemble. Similarly, Meconi notes that “La Rue’s most famous predecessor in the use of low range, Johannes Ockeghem, was himself documented as a gifted bass.” Perhaps most persuasively, however, Meconi notes that most of these works “exist in two versions, one at a low pitch and another transposed into higher vocal ranges. Such transposition is completely unnecessary if written pitch lacks any relation to sounding pitch.”

For those of us familiar with the Russian choral tradition, the idea that these pieces required basses to descend to contra A does not inspire such an incredulous reaction. While La Rue and Moulu’s compositions are an extreme anomaly in Western vocal music, many Russian composers required basses to descend to B flat, and even at times as low as the F sharp an octave below the staff. The demands of La Rue and others, while still on the edges of human ability, are certainly within the realm of possibility. While we may never know the exact pitch these composers intended for their work, Meconi rightly points out that this “recording demonstrates conclusively … that the kind of extreme singing that these exceptional pieces seem to call for is perfectly possible—when done by exceptional singers.”

The singers of the Vox ensemble are certainly exceptional, and Christopher Wolverton (Artistic Director) has done a fantastic job in shaping the execution of this repertoire. The contrapuntal nature and unusual pitches of these works is quite challenging—I have certainly encountered recordings of La Rue’s requiem where the ensembles’ intonation was lacking. That is not the case here: each singer is delightfully on pitch with a clear, flexible delivery that is skilled without becoming wooden or mechanical. Certainly, this is repertoire of great pathos: all of these works have to do with suffering and grief, and this emotion is skillfully communicated by the performers.

While I cannot emphasize enough that all of the voices on this deserve commendation, it is perhaps fitting to single out the lowest voice of the group, since it is the very lowest notes that make this recording such a rarity. Basso profundo Glenn Miller shines on this disc. This recording is not an example of a courageous performer struggling to fulfill the requirements of a staggeringly challenging composition. Instead, it demonstrates one of the more rare occurrences in the world of music: astoundingly demanding repertoire united with a performer who can execute it comfortably and confidently. Miller is not merely capable of producing the notes required, but rather sings them with the dynamics and expression essential to making the performance a success. Pierre Moulu’s “Fiere Arropos / Anxiatus est” (Track 11), has become a new favorite of mine: hauntingly poignant throughout, and descending to contra A on the final chord.

I would strongly recommend Vox’s Extreme Singing to anyone, but especially to fans of the low voice tradition in vocal music. This disc is unique in that it is one of the few that showcase the low masterpieces of the Western tradition. My music library is filled with one recording after another from the Russian tradition. While my affinity for Slavic folk and religious choral music runs deep, Vox’s recording offers a welcome variance to my collection. The lows of this recording are a strong as any found in Russian choirs, but the overall effect is quite different. Indeed, the unique nature of this recording should refresh the ears of anyone who enjoys good vocal music. I was also especially pleased to find the liner notes of this disc so fascinating and thorough. I am always interested in the history and context of wonderful music, and Meconi’s notes are excellent on both counts.

Extreme Singing may be purchased from Vox’s website here:

http://www.voxannarbor.org/recordings.asp

Listen to the first track of the album, “Absalon fili mi”, here:


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