The music of the Flemish composer, Nicolas Gombert,
has become gradually better known over the last few years. This has
been thanks in no small measure to artists such as Henry’s Eight, the
Scandinavian ensemble, Ars Nova under Bo Holten and, of course, Peter
Phillips and the Tallis Scholars.
Though details of Gombert’s life are rather sparse
it is known that he entered the service of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles
V, in 1526 as a singer in the Imperial Chapel. By 1529 he had risen
to the post of Master of the chapel choirboys. Perhaps this promotion
was his undoing for a contemporary anecdote has it that he was sent
to the imperial naval galleys as a slave to punish him for interfering
with a choirboy.
The same source states that he earned his release by
composing for the Emperor a series of eight settings of the Magnificat,
one to each of the eight Gregorian tones. These, it is said, so impressed
Charles V that he pardoned Gombert who ended his days as a canon of
Tournai cathedral. The story may be apocryphal but these are Gombert’s
last known compositions and it is strange that he should write what
became, in effect, his swansong, choosing a text which he had never
set before – though he had composed other liturgical music – and then
quite obviously consciously determining to make a complete series of
settings, embracing the full range of Gregorian tones. It is unlikely
that such a collection came into being without some purpose.
In 2001 the Tallis Scholars recorded the first four
of these Magnificats and they now complete the cycle. In fact, although
several of these Magnificats have appeared on disc before I believe
that theirs is the first complete set to appear. All the settings are
composed in alternatim, which is to say that alternate verses
of the canticle are set to plainchant (the odd-numbered verses) and
polyphony (the even numbered ones.) Very sensibly, and with liturgical
aptness, each setting is preceded and followed by a plainsong antiphon
proper to a particular feast. These antiphons are sung by a small consort
Gombert employs different vocal forces for the various
settings. Thus the Magnificats on the fifth and seventh tones are for
SATTBB and the sixth is for ATTBB. The setting on the eighth tone is
the most luxuriantly scored, having parts for SAATTBB.
In his excellent accompanying notes Peter Phillips
aptly describes Gombert’s polyphony as dense. He points out that the
Flemish master "specialised in the kind of polyphony which makes
a virtue of detail." He also observes that it is a feature of Gombert’s
style that, for extra emphasis additional vocal parts (a fifth or even
a sixth) are frequently added to the texture but that nonetheless he
"always managed to avoid a featureless muddiness." To this
comment I would only add that in these present performances the avoidance
of muddiness also owes much to the consummate skill of Phillips himself
and his singers.
I am aware that there are some who hold that British
ensembles such as the Tallis Scholars sound too smooth and lack the
open-throated fervour which characterises the singing of some of their
peer ensembles from continental Europe. Whatever the merits or otherwise
of this argument I can only say that, both on disc and ‘live’ I have
always found the Tallis Scholars to be one of the most outstanding groups
of their kind. This disc does nothing to shake that conviction. Indeed,
it serves to reinforce it.
Throughout the recital the textures are admirably clear,
the balance between the voices is judged brilliantly and the tuning
is flawless. Even where Gombert’s textures are at their richest (which
often seems to happen towards the end of a setting as extra vocal lines
are added) there is no loss of clarity. Indeed, it is precisely because
every line is accorded its due weight that the listener is aware that
extra strands of polyphony have been added.
Peter Phillips’ comment quoted above to the effect
that Gombert makes a virtue of detail might suggest that this is a dry,
academic composer – I hasten to add that the full context of the note
makes it clear that Phillips certainly did not intend such an implication.
In any event, his performances dispel any such notion. These accounts
of the Magnificat are full of life, of light and shade and of variety.
Examples could be legion but a few will suffice. In the setting on the
seventh tone there is a noteworthy duet for tenor and bass for the verse
‘fecit potentiam’ (track 8, from 3’56"). Later in the same setting
high voices are to the fore in a virtuoso treatment of the verse, ‘sicut
locutus est’ (track 8, 7’09"). If anyone should think that polyphony
is dull let them sample the fervour with which Gombert (and these singers)
address the ‘fecit potentiam’ verse in the final Magnificat (track 11,
Time and again the Tallis Scholars make Gombert’s long
lines flow with seemingly effortless ease. However, this is art which
conceals art for this music is complex and fiendishly difficult and
one can only wonder at the hours of preparation which must have been
required to achieve results of this order. Gombert could scarcely have
more committed or accomplished advocates. The vocal control is quite
astonishing though, in my experience, it is nothing out of the ordinary
for this ensemble.
The recording was made in the Tallis Scholars habitual
"studio", the church of St. Peter and St. Paul, Salle, Norfolk
where their recordings have been made for many years. This church, lovingly
described as "Norfolk’s rural cathedral" by Simon Jenkins
in his book, England’s One Thousand Best Churches (London, 1999)
boasts a wonderful acoustic, just right for this type of music. As the
church was rebuilt in the fifteenth century it is especially appropriate
that it should resound to Gombert’s almost contemporaneous music.
The recorded sound is exemplary. The CD also boasts
first-rate notes, texts and translations. It is graced by a beautiful
and very apt illustration, Madonna of the Magnificat by Botticelli
(ca 1445-1510), which also adorned the previous release in this cycle.
This disc is exemplary in every way and is a very fine achievement indeed.
I recommend it very warmly.