The discovery is NOT the music. I know these thirteen motets as well as my own vital stats. I've performed all of them myself, re-edited all of them from the original notation and prepared performance editions. I could probably take a stab at restoring them from memory if by some unspeakable tragedy the originals were lost. They are selected from a single manuscript of 53 motets, the Medici Codex of 1518, arguably the finest single collection of Renaissance polyphony ever assembled, beautiful visually as well as musically, presented indeed as a 'wedding gift' at the marriage of Lorenzo II dei Medici to the French princess Madeleine de la Tour, celebrated in a chateau on the Loire. Hey, wait a minute! I believe I played at that wedding ...
No, the discovery here is "Ring Ensemble", a group of eight singers all with Finnish names. It's not such a new ensemble, really; the nucleus was a quartet that united in 1991, and they've performed with some very well-known names, including Paul Hillier and 'Tragicomedia'. But most of their work has been directed toward modern "Baltic" composers, and somehow I never got wind of this 2000 recording until now. On this CD, they do everything right, both in vocal production and in interpretation. These motets were not casually composed, and the only way to do them justice is to adhere to the clear intentions of the composers. Some of them are set for remarkably low tessitura, for deep men's voice only, while others are clearly intended for brighter, higher voices. They are subtle in rhythm but even subtler in their modal 'harmonies'. Ring Ensemble sings all of them in the proper range, with deep insight into their modal affect, without the unjustified sharping/flatting of notes that afflict many performances of 15th C polyphony. In other words, this recording is a triumph of musical scholarship. That wouldn't amount to much listening pleasure, however, if the singing were not just as triumphant. Believe me, it is. The ensemble includes women sopranos and altos, men tenors and basses, but their control of timbre is so good that the 'mixing' doesn't matter at all. Every voice has individuality, so that the 'rhetoric' of each line of polyphony can be heard as an 'expression' of the words, but the blend of voices is more than the sum of the parts. The Finnish language must contribute something to the development of the basso voice, since baritone Teppo Lampela and basso Kari Kaarna are extraordinarily resonant.
The Medici Codex was prepared under the direction of the French composer Jean Mouton, with illustrations by the celebrated miniaturist Attavante. Mouton included ten of his own compositions in the codex, three of which are sung on this CD. He also included several glorious works by his 'teacher' Josquin Desprez, and several by his 'student' Adrian Willaert, so this was in essence a three-generational archive of polyphony around the beginning of the 16th C. The majority of the composers in the Codex are French, but two of the most sophisticated 'Italians' of the era - Constanzo Festa and Andreas de Silva, both active in the musical establishments of Rome - are represented. Festa's motet 'Deduc me, domine' and Silva's 'Omnis pulchritudo Domini' are included on this CD, superb music superbly sung. The other composers whose works are recorded here are Jean le Santier, Antonius Divitis, and Jean Richafort. There is only one anonymous piece in the Codex, the motet 'Confundatur superbi', which you'll hear on the CD. I strongly suspect it was also written by Mouton and included in the Codex as a "challenge" to other musicians; the title "The Proud Shall Be Confounded" might have alerted singers in 1518 to the thorny problems of 'musica ficta' -- the application of accidentals NOT indicated in notation.
Lorenzo II was scarcely the groom to appreciate this magnificent wedding gift. He was a weak-willed 'man of loose morals', more interested in swilling and wenching than in polyphony, who lasted only a few years after wedlock before dying of syphilis. It was for Lorenzo II, curiously enough, that Machiavelli supposedly wrote "The Prince". The bride in 1518 was fated to die young also, in childbirth, but the couple's daughter was none other than the remarkable Catherine dei Medici. It seems almost certain that the Codex was the gift of Pope Leo X, Lorenzo II's uncle, who brokered this political marriage. It would be interesting to know if anyone ever actually sang from the Codex. I doubt so; it was a luxurious piece of art intended to express the taste and power of Leo X.
And yes, I did play at a "Medici Wedding" once, but not in 1518. Decades ago, I performed at a wedding in the family of Dr. Edward Lowinsky, the formidable University of Chicago musicologist who edited the UoC Press "Monuments of Renaissance Music" publications. Dr. Lowinsky himself transcribed the whole Medici Codex; the transcription is available as volume IX of the monuments, and a black-and-white facsimile comprises another volume. Lowinsky was highly influential in the rediscovery of the 'secret art' of musica ficta, although quite a few of his editorial decisions have needed to be revised since 1968, the year of his publication. In any case, there at the Lowinsky wedding, the grand master himself spent most of the reception ignoring the guests and listening to my 'wedding band' play these and other pieces of polyphony on cornetts and sackbutts, a possibility fully sanctioned historically. A few weeks after the wedding, I got a surprise in the mail: the full three volumes of Dr. Lowinsky's Medici Codex, plus the UoC edition of the Odhecaton in transcription by Helen Hewitt. And that was long before the computer made production of playing scores easy! A lot of music, in short, of which I was to make ample use over the next three decades.