By John Y. Lawrence
This season’s Howard Mayer Brown International Early Music Series from the University of Chicago Presents has begun. Kicking it off Sunday afternoon at the Logan Center was a concert by the seven-man Dutch vocal ensemble Cappella Pratensis.
Their program centered on the ensemble’s namesake: Josquin des Prez, the most acclaimed composer in all of Renaissance Europe. The program had a clever twist. The first half was dedicated to Josquin works that adapted his predecessors, and the second half was dedicated to his successors re-setting texts most famously set by him. Hence, the title of the concert: “Imitation Game”—Josquin first as imitator, then as imitated.
Imitation has another meaning in music: contrapuntal imitation—overlapping iterations of the same melodic figure, as you would find in a fugue or canon. Josquin’s music is replete with these—more so than even in Bach’s music.
A crucial performance question, then, is how much you want to draw attention to these patterns of imitation. In Bach’s music, the standard practice is to dial back the dynamics of all of the non-imitative voices, so every overlapping entrance cuts through the texture.
This was not Cappella Pratensis’s main strategy. Their singing was impeccably clean, in timbre and balance alike. But their emphasis was on the shape and flow of lines, more than on how the lines were put together. In repertoire so often thought to be all about the intellectual beauty of counterpoint, they drew out the more vital beauty of melody.