Like fellow Hyperion artists the Brabant Ensemble, Renaissance Vocal group Cinquecento have mapped out their realm of concern fairly specifically: composers involved with the courts of Holy Roman Emperors Maximilan II, Rudolf II and Matthias, based in Vienna. Although this new CD from Cinquecento is nominally concerned with the obscure late-sixteenth century composer Philipp Schoendorff, the real star of the disc is his mentor, Philippe de Monte, both for his own music and his palpable influence on Schoendorff. A previous CD by Cinquecento was devoted to de Monte’s work, and it was one of the outstanding early music releases of recent years and a personal favourite of mine. Schoendorff and de Monte were both employed at the court of Rudolf II and it was inevitable that the junior composer should base Masses on the older master’s music. The CD opens with de Monte’s magnificent motet Usquequo Domine, a setting of one of the gloomiest texts of the entire liturgy: “How long Lord will you forget me for ever?”. By placing this astonishing music at the front of the CD Cinquecento weaken the effect of the next piece, Schoendorff’s Mass based on the same motet. It’s not that Schoendorff’s music is in any way deficient, it just pales in comparison with de Monte’s. It is partly a matter of style: while de Monte uses a magisterially contrapuntal language, Schoendorff, in the post-Council of Trent fashion, frequently uses homophony for crucial sections, which, while prioritising the liturgical text can also diminish the interest of the music, and his polyphony is simply less astonishing than that of de Monte. He also writes on a much smaller scale, and the two Masses Cinquecento perform are both over in under twenty minutes. To judge by the CD liner notes it would seem that this is the complete surviving output of Schoendorff; not a trivial legacy but undeniably modest.
This CD is a very satisfying demonstration of the features we value in Cinquecento’s performances; their one voice per line approach gives the music an intimate and articulate feel. However, I would suggest to newcomers to this repertoire that they avail themselves of the group’s earlier de Monte CD and relish its elevated and expressive quality. Then try this new disc and hear Schoendorff’s worthy homages in proper context.