CAPPELLA PRATENSIS / STRATTON BULL at Utrecht Early Music Festival

Cappella Pratensis is a Dutch ensemble, founded in 1987, specialising in polyphonic music of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.  The program today, which featured works by Ockeghem and Desprez, was performed from facsimile editions of original scores – a practice familiar to the ensemble.

During works which required full ensemble, the performers sang from a score, gathered around a large, centrally placed music stand – a practice which was not unusual during the Renaissance. Although I can appreciate the sentiment and fully support the practice of producing a historically informed performance, I found the music stand to be divisive; the ensemble angled in such a way, that their backs were to the audience for a great deal of time. Perhaps a slight adjustment to the staging would have prevented this, whilst continuing to make use of the stand. During works which did not require full ensemble, the performers sang from small hand-held scores and were much more engaged with the audience.

The performance began with fifteenth-century composer Johannes Ockeghem, the ensemble splitting into two groups on stage. The opening seemed somewhat shy and it took a while for the intonation to settle – particularly during ornamental runs and faster passages. This did improve and the balance became more successful as the accompanying parts grew more confident. The second group took over from the first and there seemed to be greater cohesion across the performers. Although the voicing was more balanced here, the top line was sometimes lost in the texture as other lines were pulled through.

The next item on the programme, a piece by Hayne van Ghizeghem, was performed by full ensemble and was much more confident – perhaps due to the more weighted nature of the lower voices. With a greater richness, the top lines were supported and the ensemble was able to produce a more full-bodied sound. During the melismatic moments, however, particularly when multiple voices were moving simultaneously, the texture became muddy and pitches slightly more approximate.

The Desprez followed and the ensemble achieved a much higher level of sensitivity. With more transparent communication, the voices moved together and more care was taken in the presentation of harmony.

The ensemble returned to the previous formation, with members again gathered around a large stand. As the singers became more tightly grouped, the sound became closed off, disconnecting the audience from the performers and restricting the sense of freedom in the performance. The harmony throughout the Busnoys (and the Desprez that followed) was highlighted successfully and although the dissonance could have been more squeezed, a certain charm was displayed in the upper line.

The next item, another Ockeghem, was the most captivating of the evening. The upper voices showcased an exciting echo effect and the canonic entries were precise and punchy. It was a shame that this was one of the shorter works tonight as the more crisp and lively nature of the piece provided much-needed contrast to the programme.

The remainder of the concert cycled through a number of works, the sound becoming increasingly convincing as the ensemble relaxed into the music. This resulted in greater freedom in the upper lines and a more playful approach to voicing. I particularly enjoyed the more intimate opening of the Gombert as the group began touching on previously unexplored characters.  As the concert came to an end, finishing with a piece by Cipriano de Rore, it felt as though the performers were winding down and overall, the energy was greatly lacking. The concert was well received by the audience and the ensemble returned to the stage for a short encore.

Overall, I felt as though tonight’s performance was not an accurate representation of the ensembles abilities (judging by previous performances and reviews). I was left wanting a more thorough realisation of the emotional content of the music and a greater level of engagement with the score. With a number of concerts scheduled, Cappella Pratensis can be seen again at numerous venues across the Netherlands.    Rebecca Jansen  31st October 2018


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