Benno Ammann – Missa Defensor Pacis blends new and old

Swiss composer and conductor Benno Amman embraced the full range of 20th Century composition — from neo-classical to experimental. That eclecticism is, I think, what makes the Missa Defensor Pacis so successful. It’s a work that could only be written in the 20th Century, and yet it seamlessly incorporates traditions of the past.

Ammann was commissioned to compose a work for the canonization of Nicholas of Flue, the patron saint of Switzerland. This was for a service in St. Paul’s Cathedral in Rome — a ritual in a space with centuries of tradition. Ammann’s mass uses techniques of the past.

He used a cantus firmus as the basis for the work (a Medieval technique). His counterpoint follows Renaissance principles for voice-leading. But his harmonies are mid-20th Century in their complexity, and the harmonic motion is almost post-tonal.

Ammann scored the work for an a capella choir of 6-12 voices, another nod to Vatican tradition. It’s a work of singular beauty, an almost timeless expression of religious devotion.

The Basler Madrigalisten have a good ensemble sound. When necessary, the voices blend seamlessly. And when the polyphony thickens, they can cleanly articulate each line, ensuring clarity. There’s not a lot of room ambiance in this recording, which is a good thing. Ammann’s music is beautiful, but it’s not simple.

My only complaint is that sometimes the sopranos sounded a little harsh, especially in exposed sections. To my ears, it sounded like an issue with the recording rather than the performance. And it didn’t detract that much from the overall effect of the music.

Just as Palestrina did with the Missa Papae Marcelli (according to legend), Ammann demonstrated that historical tradition and modernity can combine to create something beautiful.

Benno Ammann: Missa Defensor Pacis
Basler Madrigalisten; Raphael Immoos, conductor
Capriccio C5415

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