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Nicholas GOMBERT (c.1495-c.1560)
Credo for 8 voices [12:35]; Haec dies quam fecit Dominus [4:50]; Qui colis Ausonium [7:08]; Salve Regina [Diversi diversa orant] [5:58]; O beata Maria [7:43]; Vae, vae Babylon [11:27]; Media vita in morte sumus [5:59]; Lugebat David Absalon [8:22]
Henry’s Eight/Jonathan Brown
rec. Ante-Chapel of Trinity College, Cambridge, 1-3 April 1996. DDD

"Either Gombert is almost the greatest composers of the 16th Century or he’s the most boring", thus spoke my young, good-looking, female ex-pupil friend up from university. She is studying early music specifically so I listened further as we opened a bottle of Burgundy, pulled two chairs closer to the log fire and spent the evening ... yes you’ve guessed it: listening to various Gombert recordings ... what else! It’s not such an easy thing to do, as there have not been that many records devoted to his music. It seems also that he is not easily anthologized, at least not in the case of his church music. The one possible exception is ‘Lugebat David Absalon’ which may well be by Gombert’s teacher, Josquin des Pres. Some of his eighty secular pieces seem to have fared a little better ... but not much.

As we listened various simple but telling facts began to emerge:-

(1) This is densely contrapuntal music with close points of imitation which are continuous over a long time-span; much longer than that of many of his contemporaries.

(2) This is not music therefore that should be sung on automatic pilot. It needs sensitive handling. Choirs singing some of the more elderly performances we heard seemed not to realise this point.

(3) This is passionate and intense music. Dynamic changes should be made: sometimes in line with the text and sometimes in line with the exigencies of the music itself.

(4) These pieces work especially well on this CD with the all-male voices of Henry’s Eight - which includes, by the way, that superb counter-tenor William Towers - especially as the tessitura in most editions lies within a confined range.

So, we reached the conclusion that these performances by Henry’s Eight fulfil all of the above criteria. Intense, superb tuning, passionate, thoughtful throughout and rarely on automatic pilot. Furthermore they are superbly recorded in an ideal acoustic.

With that I could end the review. But you probably wouldn’t thank me for such brevity leaving you, mouth-wateringly in need of more detail and neither would our website editor. However you must understand from the start that I am totally converted to Gombert by these performances.

So let’s look at some pieces a little closer beginning with ‘Lugebat David Absalon’, the best known one and yet the most elusive. This is a setting of the famous lament on the death of Absalom. Gombert divides the text in half with similar music for the second half. In this fine performance Henry’s Eight allow the music to reach a fine, gloriously powerful and fulfilling climax.

This work is a ‘contrafactum’, rather like a musical palimpsest: it exists in the same musical format almost exactly but with different words, as a secular song ‘Je prens congie’ - although the booklet notes fail to mention this title - with a curious text beginning "I say goodbye to my loves, which I have left behind." The date of composition is unknown. You can hear this version on the Huelgas Ensemble’s disc ‘Music from the Court of Charles V’ (Sony SK 48249 probably nla but worth searching out). It can also be heard in an instrumental version played beautifully by the Orchestra of the Renaissance under Richard Cheetham (Virgin Veritas 7243 5 45203 2 7).

‘Qui colis Ausonium’ is "an occasional work" to quote the very interesting booklet notes by John O’Donnell. It was written for the signing of a peace treaty by, amongst others, Gombert’s patron Charles V of Spain. The composer worked in Spain from 1526 to 1538. The major-sounding tonality of the key is unusual for Gombert and I wondered, just in this piece, if Henry’s Eight might not have misjudged the tempo. My on-hand young expert is quite convinced that the solemnity of the occasion would have been better preserved by the slow tactus.

The eight-part Credo is a very good example of Gombert’s style with its close imitation and rolling repetitious phrases. This approach helps to create a sense of a double choir motet. Incidentally one-off mass movements like this were not unusual at this time. Gombert is credited with eleven full-scale mass settings and this fine work does not fit into any of them. Oddly enough it does however seem to have some kind of musical relationship with ‘Lugebat’ discussed above. At no point in its twelve and a half minutes does one’s interest wane. This is as much down to the performance as the music. Again Henry’s Eight help to create a sense of growing architecture as they build towards the final A-men, but still not forgetting to vary dynamics as often as seems suitable.

The other work which needs highlighting on this fine disc is the seemingly curious ‘Salve regina (‘Diversi diversa orant) for four voices. The meaning of the title is best translated as ‘Different people pray different things’: I quote James O’Donnell. This work employs "seven Marian texts and paraphrases of their plainsong melodies. The cantus paraphrases the Salve Regina ... the altus the ‘Ave Regina caelorum’ ... the tenor commences with the sequence ‘Inviolata. Integra es’ ... the bassus paraphrases the ‘Alma Redemptoris mater’". Incidentally there are other plainsongs used but what they have in common is that they are all addressed to the Blessed Virgin in different ways. This is a compositional tour de force and both the performance and clear recording do the work full justice.

Three of the motets are preceded by their appropriate plainsong intonations. It is a pity that more were not treated in such a way.

This is a very fine disc and now at budget price it is even more of an attractive proposition. Full texts and translations are given. Buy it.

Gary Higginson




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