Cappella Pratensis at Trinity St Paul’s Centre. March 3. Concert Repeats March 4.
By virtue of claiming a relationship between two completely unrelated artistic disciplines, basing a concert on a composer and telling the audience it’s actually about a painter from the same period is a strange idea. Basing the concert on a painter who stands out among his contemporaries for his allegorical depictions of heaven and hell and surreal imagery as the most bizarre artist of his day is stranger still. It’s a bit like deciding to put on, for purely musical reasons, an all-Stravinsky concert and telling the audience the concert’s about Picasso — sure, the two were contemporaries, and you could probably find them at the same parties, but there’s no artistic relationship between them, and no evidence that one artist’s work influences the other’s.
The Dutch vocal group Cappella Pratensis seemed to have the same idea when they came to Toronto last night to perform their concert “Triptych”, based on the art of Hieronymus Bosch, although I’m willing to admit if there’s a group that should be performing music based on Bosch, Cappella Pratensis is it.
The group, named after the Renaissance superstar composer Josquin Des Prez, is based in the Flemish artist’s home town of ‘s-Hertogenbosch and has spent the last thirty years performing and perfecting Franco-Flemish polyphonic works, and specializes in polyphonic works of the 15th and 16th Centuries.
There’s no doubt Bosch himself would have had occasion to hear works very similar to the pieces the group performs, and the group was careful to select music from one composer who we can say with confidence knew Bosch very well — Pierre de la Rue, also of ‘s-Hertogenbosch and a fellow member of the Brotherhood of Our Illustrious Lady. And there the relationship between the two men ends.
And it doesn’t really matter. Cappella Pratensis had very little light to shed on either de la Rue or Bosch’s lives or their work, but they did manage to entertain a full house at Trinity St. Paul’s Church with a program that consisted of just one Renaissance Mass and sung service.
What probably saved the all-male group is their obsession, to the point of fetishization with historically-informed performance. Singing one or two to a part banished the slow pulse too often heard when choirs sing Renaissance polyphony, and singing from individual parts rather than from a full score meant each singer had to know his part perfectly and couldn’t rely on imitating the other voices.
The group’s trademark, an oversize (by today’s standards) music stand and partbook, was something of a visual gimmick that hid several members of the group from the audience, but assured the audience of the group’s musicological credentials. Everyone could see that there was only one copy of the music, at least a few audience members could see that it was sung from parts, and judging from the fact that the singers had to crowd around it to see the music, the implicit message was that this was a group that’s willing to risk being able to read their own parts for the sake historical authenticity. An odd visual effect, and one the group relies on heavily, but Cappella Pratensis proved that they’ve mastered the art of Renaissance polyphony by delivering a spirited and flawless performance.