Folger Consort starts season with a polyphonic setting of Catholic Mass


Robert Eisenstein, left, and Christopher Kendall. (Mig Dooley)

A pop song as the basis for a musical setting of the Catholic Mass sounds like a peculiarly modern thing to do, but the practice can be traced back to the 15th century. One of the oldest examples, the “Missa Ayo visto lo mappamundi” by Juan Cornago, was the centerpiece of the first program in the Folger Consort’s new season, its 36th, heard early Saturday evening at the Folger Shakespeare Library.

It is a beautiful polyphonic setting of the Mass, for three male voices, with florid parts woven around the long notes of the Sicilian folk song “Ayo visto lo mappamundi.” Countertenor Martin Near, tenor Aaron Sheehan and baritone Richard Giarusso sang it mostly from a balcony above the stage, in a way that was evenly matched and blended, with just one rough patch in the “Sanctus” movement. Along with Cornago’s gorgeous chanson “Qu’es mi vida preguntays,” heard here in a version with two parts added by Johannes Ockeghem, it makes this Spanish composer one you will want to get to know.

Although the concert took its title, “Map of the World,” from the Cornago Mass, soprano Emily Noel and the consort’s four instrumentalists rounded out this musical portrait of the Iberian peninsula in the late Middle Ages and Renaissance with some secular selections. The best were the “Seven Songs of Love” by 13th-century composer Martín Codax, given narrative urgency by Noel’s limpid soprano. In the first and last songs, instrumentalist Tom Zajac used an ocean drum to evoke the crashing waves of the Bay of Vigo, to which a girl pours out her worries about the man she loves. Instrumental pieces, perhaps one or two too many, included a few fine arrangements of vocal pieces from the “Las Huelgas Codex.”

Downey is a freelance writer.

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