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Nicolas GOMBERT (c.1495–c.1560)
Tribulatio et angustia [8.58]
Hortus conclusus es [4.34]
Aspice Domine [10.40]
Virgo santa Katherina [3.02]
Inviolata [1.44]
Inviolata, integra, et casta es, Maria [7.43]
Ne reminsicaris, Domine [5.57]
Pater noster [5.07]
Ave Maria [4.32]
Ergone vitae [7.11]
Ave Sanctissima Maria [6.37]
The Brabant Ensemble/Stephen Rice
rec. chapel of The Queen’s College, Oxford, 1-3 September 2006
HYPERION CDA67614 [66.05]


Nicolas Gombert 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.

Jeremy Summerly 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 to performance.

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 detail.

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. 

Robert Hugill 



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