This release of Venetian-inspired polyphony by Hieronymus Praetorius (1560-1629) is the first from the specialist early-music label, Inventa. By and large David Skinner and his vocal and instrumental forces create a welcome addition to the catalogue, for while there are recordings exclusively devoted to this German composer, this from Inventa explores his more extravagantly-conceived Motets, variously scored from eight to twenty voices from his five-volume Opus musicum (1599-1625). Top marks for enterprise in bringing together this collection; Praetorius wrote at least one-hundred Motets of which Alamire perform seven, with two presented by His Majestys Sagbutts & Cornetts.
Making an effective contrast with these ambitious works is a plainchant setting of the Missa Summa for unison men’s voices alternating with organ, the latter sensitively shaped by Stephen Farr on the magnificent Baroque instrument at Roskilde Cathedral. There’s some fine musicianship from organist and singers, yet its four movements do not sustain attention despite a rich palette of colours from the organ. The absence of any historical/liturgical context for this Mass, in an otherwise informative booklet note, is disappointing considering the scholarly background of each of the writers.
While it’s fascinating to hear the large-scale Motets, the polychoral drama on the page (as it were) doesn’t always translate in execution. Let’s take the glorious double-choir setting of the Nunc dimittis where accumulating interest from its choral exchanges, off-beat entries and lively syncopations sound rather prim – vocal personalities mostly erased except in a couple of instances where individual voices briefly stand out from the polished restraint, in which everyone’s collars are just-so and shirts are too tightly buttoned.
Much the same can be found elsewhere. Dixit Dominus is beautifully controlled yet greater dynamic variety and rhythmic impetus would have been welcome, although excitement finally arrives in some florid brass interjections. Technically, it’s superb but any hoped-for thrill factor when the tutti forces combine for the first time doesn’t materialise.
By contrast, the more playful rhythms of the Jubilate Deo and Laudate Dominum inspire zesty performances that bound along with a spring in their collective step. There’s no lacking in grandeur either in the ten-part setting of Psalm 121 or Exultate iusti, but I wished for relief from its solidity, similarly in the relentlessly chordal textures of Angelus ad pastores ait.
Grandeur, vigour and the wow factor all come together in the lavishly conceived Decantabat populus. There’s a collective rolling up of shirtsleeves here, voices and instruments forming a fabulously sonorous response to this twenty-part hymn of praise, its gathering energy and soaring lines reaching an exhilarating close.
This release offers well-scrubbed performances, some more engaging than others, but with enough variety in the vocal and instrumental contributions to make rewarding listening.