Culture & Conversation

Sounds from heaven, via Montreal


Montreal vocal ensemble VivaVoce is nothing if not adaptable. Unusually, they seem equally adept at everything from John Cage to the Renaissance, which is the focus of this sumptuous new recording, their sixth.

A collection of 11 unaccompanied choral works from 1500 to 1564, Scenes from the Gospels: Motets from Josquin to Palestrina may initially attract attention through these two reasonably well known composers (among fans of choral and early music at least). Yet the depth of this recording’s scholarship and passion is soon made evident by a glance at the track listing. Works by five much more obscure gentlemen are also included: Nicolas Gombert, Adrian Willaert, Pierre de Manchicourt, Jacquet of Mantua and Michele Pesenti.

As the CD’s title suggests, the unifying theme of this (Western European) sacred music of the Renaissance is the life of Jesus: each work tells a story from his life, such as the raising of Lazarus, and Mary Magdalene washing his feet.

The lyrics provided, in the original Latin, as well as French and English, make the drama of these motets readily accessible. However, one of the most impressive aspects of this recording is VivaVoce’s capacity to powerfully convey that drama through a varied, virtuosic use of rhythm, dynamics and tempo. No direction about such elements were included in Renaissance musical notation, so theirs is a unique, insightful interpretation. This aural theatre is evident in every motet, but Gombert’s Domine, si tu es, about Jesus calming the water for a fearful, doubting Peter, is a particularly striking example.

The clarity of the singing is another outstanding aspect of this choir, which is a credit to the 12 individuals’ focus and skill but also the direction of Peter Schubert (what a fortunate name to have in music circles!). Four vocal ranges (three each of soprano, alto, tenor and bass) polyphonically weave through and around each other, like different coloured snakes, sinuously entwined but distinct. The passages of pure harmony (also exquisitely executed) are all the more thrilling in contrast.

That VivaVoce’s singing should be so good is one thing; effectively capturing it for posterity is another. Fortunately, this is an excellent recording, starting with the choice of venue: Montreal’s oldest church, L’Église de la Visitation (apparently the only church from the days of French rule left on the island of Montreal, it was built in the 1750s). Its warm acoustics enable the ensemble’s climactic notes to gently linger like a kiss – so much more appealing than a large cathedral’s reverberation or a recording studio’s sometimes sterile quality. Kudos to the recording team for capturing and caressing these sounds from heaven.

This CD, released by Montreal’s own ATMA Classique, will be much admired by those early music and choral fans. However, for anyone who rather likes the sound of a choir, especially those who want to explore what happened between Gregorian chant and JS Bach, Scenes from the Gospels: Motets from Josquin to Palestrina is rewarding in every way. Intelligent, technically accomplished and, above all, astonishingly beautiful.

VivaVoce, Scenes from the Gospels: Motets from Josquin to Palestrina is available for purchase from iTunes or

Upcoming events:

Singing Extempore, Saturday May 17, Redpath Hall

The Twilight of Tonality, Saturday June 7, Redpath Hall

Go here for more information.


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