A shocking Passion: De Rore in Krakow

Misteria Pachalia takes place each Holy Week in Krakow, featuring early-music ensembles from around Europe. A fuller report on the festival will appear in the Church Times, and I’ll write more about Cipriano de Rore for Early Music Quarterly, but for now I’ll share a little of what Paul van Nevel remarked to me on Tuesday afternoon as we sat in the nave of St Catherine’s church, weak late-afternoon sun trickling through the windows.

Paul van Nevel rehearsing in the Church of St Catherine, Krakow. Photo: www.michaelramus.com

Paul van Nevel rehearsing in the Church of St Catherine, Krakow. Photo: www.michaelramus.com

As director of the Huelgas Ensemble, van Nevel has done more than anyone alive, probably even dead, to promote the work of a musician he describes as ‘the most original, the most shocking personality of the 16th century, alongside Erasmus.’ On Tuesday evening he directed the Ensemble in de Rore’s setting of the St John Passion, published in 1557 – that’s 170 years before Bach’s example. Actually de Rore’s setting has far more in common with the austere, plainchant feel of Arvo Part’s setting (or rather, Part has more in common with de Rore than Bach).

‘It’s a meditation with incredible respect for the meaning of the Passion. Believe me, the easiest thing for him would have been to write the Passion in a madrigalian style, with lots of “expression”. But the plainsong style has respect for the liturgy of the Passion. He makes the text clear, and the style of this Passion has nothing to do with his madrigals, or his Masses in the Franco-Flemish style. Really, he had three or four distinct artistic personalities. You could say he was the Richard Strauss of the 16th century.’

The Huelgas Ensemble perform The St John Passion. Photo: www.michaelramus.com

The Huelgas Ensemble perform The St John Passion. Photo: www.michaelramus.com

The performance on Tuesday night was distinguished by its own sensitivity to the subtle – not sober – restraint – of de Rore’s setting, which is mostly scored for four voices. Accompanying the Evangelist (Matthew Vine), van Nevel allotted the other three voices to a trio of recorders. The ever more spare speeches and pronouncements of Christus, in turn, echoed with the gloomy resonance of a pair of trombones, Dies-Irae-like. When Pilate speaks in the quasi-philosophical dialogue that lies at the heart of St John’s account, he does so in agitated melismas, with flighty imitation from the recorders in a rare departure from the homophony that is the rule for the rhythm of the piece.

The contrast with Bach’s Passion could hardly be greater, as the festival demonstrates by staging the later work on Maundy Thursday, with René Jacobs and his Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin.