is one of those names which is probably familiar to singers
and church-goers thanks to the popularity of one or two of his
motets. In fact he wrote a considerable number of these. Some
180 have been attributed to him but the figure is probably closer
to 130 once duplicates with different texts have been removed.
These outnumber his mass settings by a ratio of 10:1. Similar
figures apply to the output of his contemporaries Clemens non
Papa and Adrian Willaert.
This new disc, from
the Brabant Ensemble presents an attractive programme of eleven
motets. This is a rich harvest; many of pieces here are around
7 minutes or so in length and some more so.
Many of Gombert’s
motets are penitential and commentators have found it tempting
to link this to the best known episode in Gombert’s life. This
is his dismissal from Imperial Service and exile to the high
seas for the violation of a boy in the Imperial service. The
presumption is that it was a choir-boy but this is not actually
recorded. He is supposed to have been accepted back into Imperial
service thanks to his writing of a sequence of eight Magnificats,
though it is unclear how he managed to do this whilst chained
in a galley!
His first book of
four-part motets, published in Venice in 1539, seems to have
taken the form of an extended penance for his crime. Not only
are many of the motets on a penitential or sorrowful form but
many refer to deliverance from watery punishment.
Gombert can often
be seen simply as a link between the low and high Renaissance,
between the music of Josquin and Palestrina. But on the basis
of this disc it is much more, with a vigour and richness all
its own. Contemporaries suggested that Gombert had studied with
Josquin, though we have no evidence for this. Gombert’s music
was consistently polyphonic in style and eschewed the more modern
styles of his Italian brethren.
Gombert and his
contemporaries have all been rather ignored until recently,
so it is difficult to tell whether Gombert’s own particular
reputation has suffered because of his conviction.
and the Oxford Camerata have already issued a fine disc of his
music on Naxos. Now we have this new one from Stephen Rice and
the Brabant Ensemble.
The music on this
disc is all richly textured smooth polyphony. The long-breathed
motets are superbly architectured and bring to mind the long,
richly complex liturgies of the Imperial Chapel. The opening
motet, Tribulatio et angustia is very much typical of
the style of motet on the disc and the Brabant Ensemble’s approach
Most of the motets
are written for a five-part ensemble, SAATB, the two alto parts
contributing to the wonderful textural richness. Virgo sancta
Katherina, is the exception, being a beautifully canonic
piece set for SSSA and hypnotically sung by the ensemble.
The recorded sequence
includes one secular piece, a setting of a neo-Latin poem by
Johannes Secundus (Jan Everaerts), on convalescing from an illness.
The piece takes a more fluid attitude to the text than the motets
and is closer to Gombert’s French chansons.
The Brabant Ensemble
is a group of some fourteen voices; their singing is smooth
with a good line, giving a nice even feel to the polyphony.
They sound as if they have been singing this music for ever,
which is always essential in this repertoire.
The sound is very
much soprano-led, though this may be a result of the acoustic
which is vibrant and lively. But the recording does justice
to the singers and allows us to hear a remarkable amount of
Rice and the Brabant
display fine musicianship and commendable curiosity in their
investigation of the motets by this underrated composer. Judging
by the length of the motets, they are unlikely to find a regular
place in the modern liturgy, but in these performances they
make ideal listening.