THE WASHINGTON POST (5/6/13)
Pomerium tackles Tudor-era music with heavenly results
By Stephen Brookes, Monday, May 6, 12:40 PM
Since founding the a cappella group Pomerium some 40 years ago, Alexander Blachly has made it a driving force for performances of Renaissance polyphony — and for innovative, hands-on scholarship as well. Lately, Blachly has been exploring music from the short but action-packed reign of Mary Tudor — who ruled England from 1553 to 1558 — and on Sunday afternoon, Pomerium brought the results to the Phillips Collection for a performance as intriguing as it was beautiful.
Mary, you may recall, briefly restored Catholicism to England, and it was no picnic — her suppression of Protestants won her the sobriquet “Bloody Mary.” But a happier result was the flowering of some of the most remarkable music of the time.
English composers were encouraged to write complex polyphony based on Gregorian chant, which was associated with Catholicism and thus banned under Mary’s predecessors. Using the chains of long, equal notes that are characteristic of chant as a base, these composers wove them into musical tapestries of astonishing ingenuity and depth, and created what may be Mary’s most enduring legacy.
Even to these decidedly secular ears, it was a profound pleasure to bask in Sunday’s performance. Pomerium takes a pure, historically informed approach, and its razor-sharp ensemble work made the intricate polyphony virtually translucent.
But there was more to the afternoon than scholarship and fine technique. Alternating works by Christopher Tye, William Byrd, John Sheppard, Thomas Tallis and Robert White, Blachly led his 10 singers through an hour of music that was sublime. There was a sense of unbounded vastness and luminous beauty in virtually every work, a kind of magnificent unstoppable power that soared above human trivialities.
In our navel-gazing, self-absorbed age, it seemed nothing less than exalting. By the end of Tallis’s magnificent “Agnus Dei, Missa Puer natus est,” you had the sense that the Phillips Collection’s music room had been transformed, if just for an hour, into a vast cathedral, awash in celestial light.
Brookes is a freelance writer.
THE NEW YORK TIMES
Classical Music and Dance Guide
This ensemble, led by Alexander Blachly, has become the standard by which early music vocal groups are measured.
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Pomerium • Corpus Christi Church—By HEIDI WALESON
The Sunday afternoon Pomerium concert was all about subtlety. Pomerium has a long history: Alexander Blachly founded the group in 1972 to sing the music of Renaissance chapel choirs. This program explored the musical relationship between the Burgundian and Spanish courts. Pomerium’s singers negotiated the intricate polyphony with uncanny precision and verve, handling everything from a spare 15th-century Mass setting by Johannes Ockeghem to the lush, intertwining textures of later motets by Tomás Luis de Victoria and some rollicking Christmas songs by Francisco Guerrero.
THE NEW YORK TIMES
Pomerium at Corpus Christi Church—By ALLAN KOZINN
To open the Music Before 1800 series at Corpus Christi on Sunday, and as its contribution to the New York Early Music Celebration, the superb vocal ensemble Pomerium offered a program based on the musical ties between Spain and Burgundy during the 15th and 16th centuries.
Musical ties then were to some extent the product of political alliances, and those were often sealed in marriage. The political and marital focal point of Pomerium’s program was the marriage of Philip the Fair, the Duke of Burgundy, and Princess Juana of Castile in 1496. Musically, this created a pipeline through which, over several generations, the music of the Flemish composers who were favored at the French court flowed into Spain and the works of Spanish composers made their way to Northern Europe.
Alexander Blachly, who founded Pomerium in 1972 and still directs it, opened the program with Ockeghem’s Missa au Travail Suis, a work that apparently made its way to Spain during the reign of Philip’s son, Charles V, who became king in 1516. Ockeghem had been dead for nearly 20 years by then, but the work survived in a cathedral manuscript in Barcelona. Slow-moving and spare in texture, this Mass nevertheless thrives on its deeply emotional text setting, and it showed the 13-voice Pomerium at its polished and beautifully blended best.
A second Flemish composer, Gombert, was represented by the Kyrie and Gloria from his Missa Sur Tous Regretz, a work composed around 1530 in what was already an immensely more sumptuous language than Ockeghem’s.
Still, the real treats here were the Spanish works. A group of colorful villancicos on Nativity texts by Francisco Guerrero had the strongest Iberian melodic accent. But there were ample charms in the magnificently seamless sacred works of Andreas de Silva and Cristóbal de Morales, and a group of works by Tomás Luis de Victoria included a sweetly harmonized setting of verses from “Song of Songs.”
THE PLAIN DEALER (CLEVELAND)
Pomerium Vocal program abounds with glorious delights of Burgundian period—By DONALD ROSENBERG
Arts patronage is not what it used to be. Not, for example, when you consider the impact the dukes of Burgundy had on creativity in the 14th and 15th centuries.
The Cleveland Museum of Art is illuminating the subject both in sight and sound these days. Its exhibition, “Dukes & Angels: Art From the Court of Burgundy (1364-1419),” amazes the eyes with all sorts of manuscripts, sculptures and paintings from the period.
Thank goodness the ears aren’t being neglected. The early-music group Ciaramella explored instrumental works from the Burgundian courts to vibrant effect Sunday at Gartner Auditorium, and the vocal ensemble Pomerium took care of a cappella matters Wednesday.
New York-based Pomerium, whose name comes from the Latin for “garden,” has been lavishing special gifts on Renaissance music since 1972. The vocal octet comprises sopranos, countertenor, tenors and basses who execute marvels of blend, interplay, clarity and enunciation under the subtle direction of founder Alexander Blachly.
But back to those arts patrons. Pomerium’s program, “Music From the Burgundian Courts of Philip the Bold, John the Fearless and Philip the Good,” reflected the wisdom and munificence that flourished in 15th-century France. The list of composers who received the artistic green light reads like a who’s who of Renaissance masters. They include Guillaume de Machaut, Gilles Binchois and Johannes Ockeghem.
Pomerium presented a potpourri of selections, both of sacred and secular personality, and luxuriated in the music’s contrapuntal ingenuity and plainchant radiance. Blachly asked the audience to withhold applause until the end of each half, a request that largely was granted.
To enumerate the glories of the 22 pieces Pomerium performed on this occasion would take several sections of the newspaper. But several works stood out for their magnificent ability to convey mystical wonder or earthly delight.
Certainly the works by Machaut captivated the senses in terms of unpredictable phrase shapes and jarring dissonances. Binchois’ Kyrie “Angelorum” requires singers to weave lines with seamless urgency, which the Pomerium members achieved with exceptional purity of pitch and rhythmic assurance.
The playful side of Binchois emerges in his song “Filles a marier,” which warns of short-termed martial bliss, while his antiphonal “Inter natos mulierum” is a glowing homage to the birth of John the Baptist.
The support network for composers evidently was strong in the Renaissance, at least as suggested in Ockeghem’s “Mort tu as navre,” in which polyphonic lines of transfixing allure pay tribute to the late Binchois.
Pomerium sang the night’s repertoire in various vocal configurations, the level remaining lofty no matter how many voices were in inspired action.
THE NEW YORK TIMES
Pomerium—By ALLAN KOZINN
This most venerable of New York’s early-music vocal ensembles, founded in 1972 and led by Alexander Blachly, consistently presents programs that offer both beautiful singing and scholarly enlightenment. Its program at the Cloisters tomorrow is appropriately seasonal and includes chant for Easter, elaborations on chant melodies by Dufay and other composers and motets by Lassus, Monteverdi, Gesualdo and Byrd.
Home of the Humanities—By ELIZABETH GUDRAIS
On one December evening, the concert [at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, DC] is by the vocal ensemble Pomerium. (Fittingly, its medieval Latin name translates as garden or orchard.) The ensemble sings in front of a Palladian arch; tapestries from the fifteenth century hang above the singers’ heads. The scene is framed by the floor of red Verona marble, the Italianate columns, the gilded bronze wall sconces—designed for candles but now electrified—and the massive silver-brass light fixtures, said to be from the cathedral of Segovia in Spain.
The program is songs of Christmas, but not those that would be familiar to modern ears. The ensemble sings in Latin, starting with a monophonic Gregorian chant version of each song—haunting in its sparsity—followed by its layered and textured polyphonic elaboration, like a stove with all its burners going at once, different dishes bubbling and boiling. Some listeners are undoubtedly considering this a commentary on stylistic change between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance; others, just as certainly, are simply appreciating the lush sounds.
SOUTH BEND TRIBUNE
Pomerium blends sacred and profane—By MICHAEL SNYDER
SOUTH BEND—Under the direction of Alexander Blachly, the New York City-based Pomerium gave a superb performance of a cappella Renaissance choral works on Tuesday night at the University of Notre Dame’s DeBartolo Center for the Performing Arts in a program titled “Masters of the Renaissance: Du Fay, Ockeghem, Josquin, Monteverdi, Gesualdo.”
The highlight of the first half of the program, which consisted of works by early Renaissance masters, was “Mass on L’homme armé,” by Johannes Ockeghem (d. 1497). The melodic material for the Mass, which was taken from the most famous melody of Renaissance Europe, “L’homme armé” (it also was used as thematic material for other pieces on the program), is woven into the fabric of all five movements. In this performance, a portion of the ensemble sang the French “L’homme armé” text beneath the Latin text, and both texts were clear and audible. The singers navigated through the composition’s musical architecture with complete ease and abandon.
The second half of the program, which featured music from the late Renaissance, consisted of four madrigals by Claudio Monteverdi (c. 1567-1643) and six motets and responsories by Carlo Gesualdo (c. 1561-1613).
The Monteverdi pieces are of particular interest: Conceived as love songs set to Italian poetry, they were later adapted to sacred texts in Latin; Pomerium sang the Latin texts. Gesualdo’s works, like those of Monteverdi, point toward a new sophistication, especially in his use of chromaticism. The singers were able to adjust their sound to the heavier, fuller lines of Monteverdi and Gesualdo, always maintaining a precise, clear tone that allowed them to sing perfect chromatic harmonies.
A professor of music at Notre Dame, Blachly, the founder and director of Pomerium, knows the Renaissance repertoire intimately and has an innate understanding of voices and how they work. As such, Pomerium performs not so much as a choral group but as an ensemble of solo singers who know how to work together without overshadowing one another. Because their voices are of a high caliber, the singers in Pomerium brought something to this performance that is often lacking in other ensembles’ performances of this repertoire: color and timbre.
THE NEW YORKER
Escaping the Museum—By ALEX ROSS
“Passion, not reverence, makes early music come alive.”
[Essay begins with a discussion of Andrew Manze’s concert at the Frick Museum]
A week after Manze visited the Frick, the Pomerium vocal ensemble gave a concert of fourteenth-century music at Cooper Union, in the East Village. Like the Frick, Cooper Union is routinely lit up by lively programs, which are in need of support. Pomerium’s program centered on songs and sacred pieces of Guillaume de Machaut, one of the first composers in history to have put an unmistakable personal stamp on their music. He wrote partly in the wake of the Black Death, and his music is almost deliriously inventive, as if he were trying to forget the world around him by making a new one on paper.
Alexander Blachly, the leader of Pomerium, has been involved with early music for decades, and his thinking has evolved and matured along with the rest of the movement. He told me in a phone conversation that back in the sixties early-music specialists were obsessed with the ideal of “staying true to the work”; performances were correct, chilly, studiously inexpressive. “It all came out sounding like Hindemith training exercises,” he confessed. Now Blachly aims for a more elastic approach, for more shapely and sensuous phrasing. His current ensemble—on this evening, four women and seven men, with high voices dominating—easily meets his demands. Plain lyric strains gave a human touch to even the most ornate, mathematical designs; vibrato-free, church-choir tones alternated with a more red-blooded, vernacular style. The singers delivered Machaut’s great “Notre Dame Mass” with the same ardor that they applied to secular, love-drenched pieces such as “Dis et sept, cinq,” “Je sui aussi,” and “Quant Theseus.”
As I listened, I got a sense of Machaut as a familiar intellectual type—the self-imprisoned man who hides his passion behind a panoply of masks. He wrote reams of poetry and music in praise of a young noblewoman named Peronelle d’Armentières, whom he seems to have romanced in his sixties. Peronelle, having thrown herself at Machaut out of adoration for his art, soon abandoned him for a man closer to her age and station. Somehow it’s all too perfectly awful to be true. Like Beethoven in his “Immortal Beloved” period, like the Thomas Mann of “Death in Venice,” Machaut may have locked his highest passion in a region of his mind. Performers must not only follow the notes but set the emotion free.
THE NEW YORK TIMES
Deep Sorrow Chased by Joy—By PAUL GRIFFITHS
Since we know very little about the great Renaissance composers, we have to find other contexts in which to hear them. Alexander Blachly, in a concert on Sunday afternoon with his small choir, Pomerium, usefully suggested two.
In the first place, the program concentrated on music for the few days from Holy Thursday to Easter, the time when the church remembers Jesus’ death and resurrection. Before intermission were mostly works of sorrowing and sacrifice, leaving sudden joy and revived spirits for the second half. In each case, though, Mr. Blachly cannily interpolated an opposite color. Victoria’s six-part Easter motet “Surrexit pastor bonus” bubbled along before Lassus’s “Tristis est anima mea” and the fiercely poignant harmonies of Gesualdo’s “Tenebrae factae sunt.” Morales’s quiet “Circumdederunt me” preceded the brilliant, swinging “In resurrectione tua” of William Byrd at the close.
The music was taken from all over the place, but it was carefully organized by period. That was how Mr. Blachly offered his second option, to hear the program as a miniature survey of the musical Renaissance.
The whole story was told just in the first half, with six composers filing past in almost precise chronological order, from Dufay through Josquin, the comparatively obscure Provençal composer Carpentras, then Victoria, Lassus and Gesualdo. One could almost hear plainsong receding, tonality becoming stronger, words fighting to the front.
Pomerium’s performances had wonderful harmonic solidity, dynamic nuance and clarity of counterpoint, besides being boldly in tune for the startling dissonances of Monteverdi and Gesualdo.
This was the last event in the Music Before 1800 season. Next year, happily, Pomerium will be back.
THE NEW YORK TIMES
Mary Tudor’s Version Of Old-Time Religion—By PAUL GRIFFITHS
Not many people get to make history, but anyone can have fun rewriting it. The history being rewritten now at Columbia University, in a series of concerts, is that of Mary I of England, long remembered by some as a Catholic hiccup in the inevitable arrival of Anglicanism and good sense. No, says George Steel, the organizer of these programs. And no, agrees Alexander Blachly, who on Saturday led his group Pomerium in a superb concert of English sacred polyphony at St. Paul’s Chapel on the Columbia campus.
For them, Mary was a popular heroine and patron of the arts. She let English folk return to the religion they loved, and she encouraged composers to get back to their great flamboyant tradition.
There are just two things wrong with this picture. One is that Thomas Tallis, the pre-eminent composer of the period, had a long life and almost none of his music can be dated with certainty to the five years of Mary’s reign. The other is that Tallis’s single work undoubtedly written for Mary, his splendiferous “Puer Natus Est” Mass, suggests not so much a reawakened English medievalism as a grand swerve into the continental Renaissance.
No matter. What was important here was the magnificence of the music and of the singing. If Tallis did indeed write from 1553 to 1558, all the pieces of his that were presented on this occasion, he was a master of quite diverse styles simultaneously, ranging from the majestic chordal movement of the “Puer Natus Est” Mass, of which the “Gloria” and “Agnus Dei” were sung, to the labyrinth of the antiphon “Gaude Gloriosa Dei Mater.”
This work—made of what Mr. Blachly, speaking beforehand, aptly called “ribbons of melody”—proved far more varied in texture, and only predictable in its harmonic direction at rare points of cadence. Different again were the other two Tallis items: the hymn “Salvator Mundi,” keeping its beautiful plainsong melody prominent on top, and the responsory “Loquebantur Variis Linguis,” where voices in imitation seemed to represent the apostles at Pentecost speaking in tongues.
Works by Tallis’s contemporary Christopher Tye offered some severely strange harmonies (“Kyrie Orbis Factor”) and radiant chords followed by teasing rhythmic details (“Sanctus” of the “Euge Bone” Mass). Also represented were two composers of the next generation, Robert White and Robert Parsons, both of them as ready as Tallis to join in with what was happening across the English Channel.
Everything sounded marvelous under the chapel’s dome: sonorous with reverberation, but not to the detriment of contrapuntal clarity. It helped of course that the voices were so well focused, with sopranos of pure luster and long phrasing, and a strong group of men heard alone in a vigorous performance of White’s “Regina Coeli.”
THE NEW YORK TIMES
Unadorned Voices Peal Out In Bitterness and Sorrow—By ANNE MIDGETTE
It was Holy Saturday, and the 13th-century Fuentidueña Chapel at the Cloisters in Upper Manhattan was filled with the clean sound of unaccompanied voices ringing off the old stone. Twice in one afternoon the a capella ensemble Pomerium presented a seasonal concert of Renaissance Passion motets that was as lovingly curated and classily presented as any of the museum’s other displays.
During the fasting period of Lent, Glorias, Alleluias and other musical expressions of joy were historically prohibited from church services. Pomerium focused on the 15th- and 16th-century lamentations and meditations that were sung instead. A kind of bitterness, like tears, underlies these works’ polyphony, in the nakedness of human voices expressing suffering, unmitigated by any instrumental covering.
Within this repertory, Pomerium’s knowledgeable founder and director, Alexander Blachly, created a program that traced both a historical trajectory, from the 15th century to the early 17th, and a coherent dramatic line. The vocal writing moved from plainchant — which Guillaume Du Fay alternated, in his ”Vexilla regis prodeunt,” with verses written in shimmering harmony — through to a more florid, more operatic expression of emotion like Carlo Gesualdo’s almost cinematic evocation of the Crucifixion in ”Tenebrae factae sunt.” The selections were also arranged so as to form a unified story, moving from Du Fay’s rather general meditation on the mysteries of the cross to climax in specific narratives of Christ’s death and concluding with a glimpse of joy after the resurrection in William Byrd’s ”In resurrectione tua.”
Along the way there were wonderful surprises, like two Monteverdi madrigals that a rhetorician named Aquilino Coppini kitted out in the 17th century with sacred Latin texts to make these popular secular works suitable fare for singing nuns.
The ensemble sang beautifully with a care for period style, banishing vibrato from their voices in the requisite sexless manner of English choir boys. Giving two concerts in a row of this kind of music is quite a strain on the voice, and that this was sometimes audible in the second concert was no reflection on the singers, nor any blemish on the honor of this lovely program.
THE WASHINGTON POST
Pomerium—By CECELIA PORTER
When Noah Greenberg created the New York Pro Musica in 1952, he pioneered the performance of medieval and Renaissance music in this century. Early music, he noted, “must not be quaint.” One of many such ensembles sustaining Greenberg’s legacy, the 12-member Pomerium, led by Alexander Blachly, appeared Saturday at Dumbarton Methodist Church in a program of early 16th-century sacred motets written for the Sistine Chapel during Michelangelo’s era.
It takes consummate singers like these to navigate artfully through the contrapuntal currents determining the shape and texture of works by Josquin, de Silva, Festa, Carpentras, Mouton and Willaert. Without instrumental support, the Pomerium surmounts the technical challenges of this music with total control, impeccable intonation and perfect balance. They convey the drama of key words and the interactions between ever-changing voice groups. They complete phrase endings with tight finesse and slide into prominent cadences with driving intensity. Through all this, they produce a lustrous sonority, full-bodied yet never harsh or dry, and consistent tone quality (despite the mixture of three sopranos against male countertenors, tenors, and basses). The Pomerium, in short, re-created the beauties of a repertoire that kept the papal chapel out front in the competition among Renaissance courts to outdo each other—in the magnificence and monumental dimensions of their music, painting and architecture.
THE NEW YORK TIMES
Beneath Cooper Union, the a Cappella Sounds of the Sistine Chapel—By BERNARD HOLLAND
Renaissance polyphony from our vantage point floats freely in the air, describing an ethereal geometry of shape and density. In its time, however, the music of Josquin Desprez, Adrian Willaert and their colleagues was just as much about the places in which it was performed, the most familiar surviving example of this being Gabrieli’s antiphonal brass calling back and forth across the interior of St. Mark’s Church in Venice.
The Vatican’s Sistine Chapel, more noted for other things, was also a place for music, and as Pomerium’s concert at Cooper Union on Saturday night took pains to show, the Masses, motets and magnificats sung there were selected with an awareness of an enormous competition going on for the senses of those present. If Michelangelo’s interiors were overpowering, it stood to reason that music in the Sistine Chapel had to be the same.
Alexander Blachly, director of this venerable 14-strong a cappella group, chose his program from the Sistine’s choir books used during the first third of the 16th century, when a succession of popes were showing unusual generosity to the arts. Josquin is a frequent entry and, indeed, was regarded by papal music critics of the time as a Michelangelo in sound. In a program that included music by Costanzo Festa, Andreas de Silva, Elzéar Genet, Jean Mouton and Willaert, there were items of more outward drama than Josquin’s two entries on Saturday. But the breadth and depth of his interweaving voices dominated everything around them, as they probably did almost 400 years ago. Not all composers wait for posterity to be recognized.
If the first moments of this concert sounded apprehensive, the rest was very well sung. Only experts can sing difficult music like this, unsupported yet maintaining unshakable pitch. More important was an informed enthusiasm being shared among true professionals. “Musica Vaticana” was the last of six October events put on partly, I am sure, to promote Cooper Union’s basement auditorium as a concert venue. Saturday’s audience was big. The sound was fine, though some patrons would be troubled by pillars’ interrupting sightlines around the hall. These are surely structural and are going nowhere; music, on the other hand, is for the ear, and it hears well here.
Robert Randolf Coleman’s preconcert talk gave us Goethe’s take on music at the Vatican. The “Italian Journey” is most vivid describing Rome’s carnival evenings, but Goethe also took time to inspect the Sistine Chapel. Several times, in fact, with the first visits more or less solitary and the last for a performance of music. “I knew the chapel very well,” he wrote, “and the frescoes almost by heart, but when these form the surroundings to the function for which the chapel was intended, they look quite different, and I hardly recognized the place.” The eye and the ear are different kingdoms, but they use adjectives like “grand” and “complex” in pretty much the same way.
THE NEW YORK TIMES
Gamesmanship and Polyphony in Paradise—By ALLAN KOZINN
Pomerium’s concerts of early choral music typically address both the mind and the heart. In this chamber choir’s performances, an analytical listener can focus on the details, innovations and structural niceties of a composer’s style, with ample technical support from the program notes by Alexander Blachly, the group’s founder and director. But the blend of these 14 singers is such that however analytical one might want to be, it is impossible not to be swept into the sound, or to admire it for its sheer beauty and balance.
When the program is devoted fully to the music of Josquin, as the group’s Sunday afternoon concert in the Music Before 1800 series at Corpus Christi Church was, both these aspects are served exceptionally well. Josquin, more than most of his contemporaries and immediate successors (with the possible exceptions of Lassus and Palestrina) exerts a palpable presence for listeners with any interest at all in pre-Classical works. His smoothly unfolding and seemingly all-enveloping polyphony seems to touch on the sublime, and strikes 20th-century ears as the zenith of sacred text setting, more spiritual in its way than even Bach.
Yet as high as the music soars, it also embodies entirely down-to-earth game playing, something evident in several of the works Pomerium sang. In Ut Phebi radiis, a motet in which naturalistic imagery and biblical references are first used in praise of Mary, and then in a more generalized prayer, the text is constructed so that the start of each line includes Latin words that can also be read as the consecutive notes of a musical scale, with one note added to the sequence in each line. Josquin builds his motifs from these notes and treats them canonically. Heard superficially—simply as a sacred setting—the piece is irresistible. Heard with an ear for its gamesmanship and technical finesse, it is all the more astonishing.
Other Josquin innovations on the Pomerium program were less virtuosic, perhaps, but were enlightening in other ways. A setting of the Stabat Mater, for example, weaves a verse from a French love song by Binchois into a setting of the traditional Latin text. The two disparate sources work on each other in a fascinating way, providing a perspective in which Mary’s suffering—the subject of the Stabat Mater—is put in the context of a different sort of heartbreak.
The centerpiece of the program, the Missa Hercules dux Ferrarie—a Mass Josquin composed for his patron, Duke Ercole I of Ferrara—has a gently undulating cantus firmus (a figure that is repeated through the work, and around which the other vocal lines are built) constructed of the musical notes suggested by the vowels in Hercules’ name and title. Pomerium, following the suggestion of the musicologist Lewis Lockwood, actually sang the motto—Hercules dux Ferrarie—with the Mass text swirling around it. In his notes Mr. Blachly argues that such a practice would have suited Ercole’s vanity, but at times one senses a higher purpose as well. Weaving Hercules’ name into the Benedictus (“blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord”), for example, can be seen as an expression of piety by Josquin on his employer’s behalf.
Pomerium’s performances were exquisite, and if one is used to hearing this music in a room with more revererant acoustics than those of Corpus Christi, there is something to be said for a setting that allows every line of the polyphony to be heard clearly.
THE NEW YORK TIMES
Pomerium: A Popular Spirit of Christmas Past—By ANTHONY TOMMASINI
A long line of people snaked around the lobby of the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Sunday hoping to get into the first of two performances that evening by Pomerium, the estimable Renaissance a cappella vocal ensemble, now in its 26th year. Both concerts were sold out, and it’s not hard to understand why. Pomerium has won a loyal audience for stylistically informed and vocally lustrous performances under its founding director, Alexander Blachly. Moreover, the setting for this program of Renaissance music for the Christmas season was ideal: the 13-member group performed before the museum’s celebrated Neapolitan Christmas tree in the lovely sculpture garden.
The sound of the ensemble in this grand space was hauntingly beautiful. The acoustics are reverberant without being excessively so, as they are in many churches. For people who wonder why the Renaissance cultivated a vocal style that did not favor thick vibrato, this concert offered an explanation: the vocal music of the era was conceived for spaces like this one, where clear, focused voices create wondrously shimmering sounds.
Without being didactic, the 60-minute program also offered a mini-lesson in how Renaissance vocal music was conceived. A series of plainchants were performed, each one followed by a vocal work that used the chant as a taking-off point for polyphonic elaboration. That is, each single line of chant, after being subjected to its own ornamentation and rhythmic prolongation, becomes one voice in a multilayered, complex, contrapuntal work.
In some compositions, the layering is lucid and restrained, as in Guillaume Du Fay’s moving “Alma redemptoris mater.” But other works, like Cipriano de Rore’s “Quem vidistis pastores,” create a glorious jumble of counterpoint.
This was an era when words and music were inextricably linked, and it is always fascinating to note the attitude composers took toward the texts they set. For example, in “Preter rerum seriem,” Josquin Desprez very seriously treats the text’s statement concerning the Mother of Christ, namely, that “No man touched the Virgin,” nor did Joseph know the origin of the child. This phrase is driven home with insistent monotone repetitions in the bass voices, while agitated upper voices move with strikingly staggered rhythms to suggest that this event, as the text states, is “beyond the natural order of things.”
The Pomerium ensemble sang with its customary sensitivity to text and warm, unforced sound. Works by Byrd, Palestrina, Lassus and others were given similarly fine performances. Pomerium could probably present this program every night to sold-out audiences during the Christmas season.
CONCERT OF THE WEEK—Robert Levine
The 13-member early-music group known as POMERIUM (medieval Latin for “garden” or “orchard”) always gives its listeners something to ponder. At their recent (December 13th) concert at New York’s Metropolitan Musem of Art, they offered a glorious program: Each Gregorian chant they offered was followed by a polyphonic elaboration by a Renaissance master. The evening’s x centerpiece was the plainchant “Preter rerum serium” and its treatment by Josquin. This low-lying work (so low, in fact, that the group’s countertenor was called in to work as a bass — a job he filled superbly) is divinely complex in contrast to its plainchant precedent, with rapid coloratura from the tenors and altos throughout the first half and great exaltation when the mystery of the virgin birth is revealed and Mary is hailed. The rest of the program was equally ambitious and complex, from Du Fay’s “Alma redemptoris mater II,” through works by Costanzo Festa, de Rore, Palestrina (his super “Dies sanctificatus”), Willaert, Byrd and Lassus. Pomerium’s built-in authority allowed the group to enter in silence; they left with shouts of approval.
A Breath of Divine Eternity: Pomerium Sings
Vatican Motets in Regensburg—By GERHARD DIETEL
Pomerium displayed the architecture of the music in an irresistible manner and with a majestic sweep, which, with intense listening, led to a trance-like state of suspended animation.
The Pomerium ensemble from New York in the
A Musical Meditation
One of the best vocal ensembles of early music—four women with slender, bright soprano voices, and ten men—offered the highest vocal artistry: a lightness in the high range, a profound bass in the low range, with an overall transparency of sound.
The small vocal group offered warm and heartfelt singing. Its superb vocal artistry has an intense inner life, like a musically inspired meditation. In the gothic cathedral of Bozen, with its magnificent acoustics, the music was overwhelming.
A finale at the highest level in Trent and Novacella for the 1998 edition of the concert series.
Pomerium offered a precious concert. Their singing style is solid but soft, granite-like but dynamic, of a sonority almost organ-like in the tuttis.
Sacred Festival. Grand Finale in Trent with an
Ensemble from the USA
Music of the Popes
Pomerium and the charm of polyphony
TRENT – Pomerium’s music for the mind drew from the Renaissance taste for proportion, the harmonious meeting of parts, the symbol of divine perfection. Sound beyond the human, which the extraordinary singers interpreted literally, displaying an exceptional equilibrium, timbral compactness, and excellent intonation.
THE CLEVELAND (OHIO) PLAIN DEALER
A Cappella Ensemble Is Sublime–By Wilma Salisbury
Under the authoritative leadership of founder-director Alexander Blachly, the 13-voice a cappella ensemble from New York approached perfection. The ensemble sings with straight tone, precise intonation, and flawless balance. The singers’ ability to produce pure thirds makes their sonority as penetrating as the bright sound of a mean-tone organ.
The singers also know how to orchestrate their voices like an organist pulling stops, and they can intensify their collective timbre to a reedy edge. But the flow of vocal colors and dynamics they achieve is subtler than any effects possible on a mechanical instrument. Smooth rhythmic shifts and carefully gauged Latin vowels and consonants also heighten the sublime expressiveness of their performance.
Because of the religious nature of the repertoire, applause between numbers seemed inappropriate, and Blachly did not always acknowledge it. At the end, however, the applause was so prolonged that the ensemble came back for an extra bow and an encore, a brief benediction by Du Fay.
THE COLUMBUS (OHIO) DISPATCH
13-Voice Pomerium Radiates Spirituality–By Ralph O’Dette
With remarkably secure intonation, the Pomerium vocalists sang perfectly in tune. The effect was magical. Blachly does not homogenize the sound of his group. Individual timbres could be heard and the overall sound was vital and exciting. The imaginative vocal writing and daring harmonies of a Josquin motet were stunningly projected in a program filled with marvels.
Reviews From the Past
THE NEW YORK TIMES
One of the finest early-music ensembles in the country, and perhaps the world.
Pomerium stresses clarity and intonation. The timbres appear in primary colors.
Pomerium’s unisons are impeccable, the pacing unmannered. . . . Josquin Desprez’s Virgo salutiferi sounded as dramatic as any Ride of the Valkyries.
Pomerium demonstrated that it is through its most luminous presences that an era is judged. The music’s sinuous, melancholic and vigorous lines were matched by the refined precision and grace of the singers, who created lines that were both taut and supple.
Best of all, Pomerium’s singing was not simply correct; it was musical, expressive and winning all the way.
Pomerium’s lean, tightly-controlled choral texture reproduces the almost Gothic austerity of the music with extraordinary clarity and tonal beauty.
—Peter G. Davis
The purely sensuous beauty of this music on Sunday made one forget about the church altogether. . . . Pomerium sang Palestrina beautifully.
The early-music ensemble Pomerium, which combines diligent scholarship with a spontaneous joy in performance, sang with taste and
Pomerium, corporately and individually, sounded superb, with fine cohesion, lovely tone, and precisely shaded pitch.
The heavenly intertwining of their voices gave a pleasure so keen as to make one wonder why music ever went on changing after 1550 or so.
A superbly executed artistic experience, one in which the exactitude of pitch and phrasing were enlivened still further by a fine spirit and vivacity. The audience seemed enraptured.
Schütz was represented by two early Italian madrigals and three mature German motets, beautifully sung by Pomerium. In Bach’s motet “Komm, Jesu, komm” (BWV 229) and the cantata < “Lass, Fürstin, lass noch einen Strahl” (BWV 198), Pomerium’s contribution was exemplary, from the double choruses of the motet to the unisons of the cantata’s finale.
—James R. Oestreich
The voices in Pomerium have been well chosen for suitability of timbre, and each seemed to be backed by keen musical intelligence and stylistic awareness. Particularly enjoyable was the seeming effortlessness of the singing. There was no sign of straining for stylishness, sensitivity or vivacity, which, in appropriate degrees, characterized everything.
THE NEW YORKER
Pomerium is a virtuoso Renaissance ensemble: smooth, fluid, supple, exquisite but not arty in timbre, surefooted in rhythm, treading one rhythmic maze after another with the serene swiftness or slowness of Balanchine dancers.
The Pomerium singers were tuneful, supple, and well balanced.
The performances by Pomerium gave a rare pleasure. This small ensemble sings with absolute clarity and with piercing directness of tone. Pomerium is accomplished in technique and individual in style.
The works were bravely and movingly turned into living music by Mr. Blachly and Pomerium, a virtuoso group of gifted individuals who together make a wonderful sound. This was a concert of rare merit: great music performed with care, devotion, and uncommon accomplishment.
The concert was memorable. Pomerium’s sound is very strong, exciting in timbre; the phrasing is crisp and firm.
THE PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER MAGAZINE
Even if you don’t like music written before Bach, you’ll love Pomerium, the 13-voice a cappella ensemble founded in New York in 1972 by Alexander Blachly, its director. Pomerium’s impeccable intonation never faltered. The sound was nicely shaped and often heavenly. Each phrase, too, reflected the meticulous preparation of a virtuoso choir and director. Of course, St. Paul’s lively acoustics only enhanced the joyful sound. Nevertheless, Pomerium would have done well in any setting.
—Ken Keuffel, Jr.
GARDEN OF DELIGHTS
December 15th found Pomerium back at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art with a typically thoughtful, and beautiful, concert of music by Byrd, Du Fay, Josquin, Cipriano de Rore, Praetorius, Orlande de Lassus, and Robert Ramsey. Before each work by one of these composers, Pomerium sang the Gregorian chant or monophonic devotional song upon which the composer based his adaptation—in other words, each selection was first presented in its barest form and then in the highly embellished, polyphonic, contrapuntal treatment afforded it by the composer. The effect was stunning: The audience was treated to the aural equivalent of a black and white painting suddenly turned to vivid color. The group’s singing was flawless: They breathe, feel and blend with one another in a truly magical way.
THE MUSICAL TIMES
The Pomerium singers gave some of the finest performances of Lassus, Monteverdi, Gesualdo, Vecchi and Gastoldi that I have heard in the past 20 years.
NRC HANDELSBLAD (Netherlands)
The performance by Pomerium was light and resilient, utterly transparent and translucent. The music sounded like the stars shining in a clear sky: mystical and from afar, but inescapable.
ALTE MUSIK AKTUELL (Germany)
In Pomerium’s recording of Du Fay’s Missa Sancti Anthonii de Padua, an “inner peace” radiates out, made manifest in the deeply moving, gem-like interpretation.
MUSICA SACRA (Germany)
Pomerium’s concert was the first, if not in fact the highpoint of the Tage Alter Musik festival. How finely Gesualdo’s chromaticism and dramatic declamation can be fashioned! This was the non plus ultra of interpretation of Renaissance polyphony.
—Franz A. Stein
Such technical perfection, such rock-steady intonation, such sophisticated articulation! The interpretations were irreproachable: shining sound in clear-flowing lines, and with such a homogeneous blending of voices that the familiar L’homme armé melody seemed almost to rise up from the web of surrounding voices. The expressive harmonies and sudden changes of effect, the dark, shining colors, and the committed performace: all these produced a direct thrill.
The absolute highpoint of the Regensburg “Tage Alter Musik.” One could follow the text without effort, thanks to the exceptionally fine articulation. The performance of the triads offered a seldom-heard purity.
Such stylistic assurance, purity of intonation, and sheer beauty of sound are unrivaled by any other American group singing this repertoire.
Pomerium sings with superb lucidity, showing an attractive, vibrant energy.
Dufay’s Missa Ecce ancilla Domini receives the finest performance of any work by Dufay that I have yet encountered on record. Every detail is clear; the ebb and flow of the music are perfectly judged.
An astonishing year for Renaissance music on record. In the place of honour is the splendid record of Dufay’s Mass Ecce ancilla Domini by Pomerium under Alexander Blachly because it brings so much musical insight to one of the leading masterpieces of early Renaissance music.
Corpus Christi Church, New York
The final program in this season’s “Music Before 1800” series featured the Renaissance vocal ensemble Pomerium. Led by director Alexander Blachly, Pomerium, whose name translates as “garden,” is distinguished by its beauty and purity of sound, remarkable inner voice clarity, and always impeccable intonation—qualities which sounded forth perfectly in the splendid acoustic of Manhattan’s Corpus Christi Church.
Their program, entitled “Ockeghem and his Circle,” was a celebration of the fifteenth century composer, as well as those with whom he worked and whom he influenced. The opening Ave Maria made immediately clear why Ockeghem was so beloved by his contemporaries—it is a miracle of ever-expanding and interweaving polyphony captured in exquisite, immaculate timbres. Ockeghem’s Missa L’homme armé dominated the first half, and here Pomerium’s arresting qualities were at their most audible, as Blachly and his singers maintained a tonal variety that ever captivated the ear throughout five movements all in the same key.
But perhaps the most intriguing Ockeghem work appeared on the second half: the comparatively brief Mort, tu as navré (Lament on the death of Binchois) with its dual-layer construction in which the lower voices repeat the Requiem Mass while above the higher voices sing three strophes honoring the departed composer Gilles Binchois. Binchois himself was represented by a moving Kyrie “Angelorum” and Psalm 110 (sung in plainchant), as well as the endearing love ballade De plus en plus. This last was one of the pieces wherein Pomerium subdivided into smaller units (in this case a vocal trio); others included the humorous Filles a marier (Binchois) and the more serious Vergene bella (another trio) by Guillaume Du Fay, whose Il sera par vous combatu was featured as well. Perhaps the most familiar name on the program was that of composer Josquin Desprez, whose haunting Ut Phebi radiis closed the first half. Desprez would have a similar honor at the program’s end, which offered the deeply felt Nymphes des bois (Lament on the death of Ockeghem). For this last work, Pomerium sounded just as fresh and captivating as it had in the beginning. The audience’s applause for this remarkable group was prolonged and appreciative.
THE COURIER-JOURNAL (LOUISVILLE)
All hail vocal purity of tone and purpose—By ANDREW ADLER
Anyone declaring that 15th-century vocal polyphony is uniquely exquisite will get no argument from me. As yesterday’s performances by the Pomerium ensemble testified with such articulate, sumptuous power, Ockeghem, Busnoys, Du Fay and their brethren composers defined an aesthetic undiminished by the next half-millennium of evolving styles.
Simply put, the unaccompanied vocal lines of these scores, combined in pure-toned textures, colors and trajectories, delight the ear in fabulous ways. The level of accomplishment needed to do full justice to this material, however, is seldom encountered. Too often a listener enters the concert hall full of hope and emerges grumbling in frustration.
Not with Pomerium. Director Alexander Blachly’s eight singers came to the University of Louisville School of Music and displayed complete idiomatic mastery of their program. The 2005-06 Speed Endowed Concert Series is off to a superb start.
Dubbed “Music from the Burgundian Courts of Philip the Bold, John the Fearless and Philip the Good,” Pomerium’s lineup was broad and deep.
It was the last of this threesome, though, whose spirit hovered most over the afternoon’s repertoire in Comstock Concert Hall. Philip the Good had the instinct, resources and practical sense to indulge in the good life, which included several leading composers of the day.
Their achievements astonished then and astonish now — typified by works like Busnoys’ “In hydraulis,” Du Fay’s “Il sera par vous conbatu/L’ome arme” and “Vergene bella,” and above all yesterday, Ockeghem’s deeply contemplative “Mort tu as navre,” a memorial to his mentor Binchois.
Whether in full ensemble or through various sub-groupings, Pomerium’s singers were technically fastidious without ever coming off as stylistic fussbudgets. We’ve come a long way from the days when historically informed performances tended to compromise expressive potency.
Groups like the Tallis Scholars and the Hilliard Ensemble put that to rest some time ago. Add Pomerium to those select and enlightened ranks.
BBC THIRD PROGRAMME
Pomerium is an outstanding small vocal consort. Their concert of English music from the Old Hall Manuscript and earlier was, I think, one of the most memorable I’ve heard in any field in New York. Their style has no elements of self-advertisement or triviality.
BOSTON EARLY MUSIC NEWS
The sound is rich and almost organlike, with finely-honed tuning. If only an organ could produce such carefully modulated thirds at every turn!
THE NEWS AND COURIER (Charleston, South Carolina)—David Maves
When the whole group was singing with full volume the sound seemed to rattle the rafters. Suffice it say that their performance would be a major musical moment in anyone’s life.
CD REVIEW—David Vernier
Busnoys is lucky to have advocates and interpreters such as the early music vocal ensemble Pomerium. The group combines warm, perfectly balanced tone with polished, effortless-sounding delivery — an ensemble technique that would be the envy of any group of singers.
INTERNATIONAL MUSIC GUIDE
The singing is outstandingly clear and tasteful. The striking spontaneity of this most subtle composer’s (Ockeghem’s) personality has never been so well caught in recorded performance.
THE BOSTON GLOBE—Richard Buell
Ravishingly beautiful singing — light but strong, blended, clear, and totally winning.
THE BOSTON PHOENIX
An exemplary early-music group. The singers all have fine voices that blend seamlessly, clear diction, intense concentration, and powerful identification with the text.
STEREO REVIEW—Stoddard Lincoln
The singers of Pomerium produce a clear sound and sing with a rhythmic vitality that brings life to each of the intricately wrought parts of the music. A model of vocal chamber music.
EARLY MUSIC (England)
Pomerium gave exceptionally stylish performances. Every melodic line was clean and buoyant, and the singers seemed to sympathise with each other admirably.