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Nicolas GOMBERT (c.1495-c.1560)
Tulerunt Dominum meum [5:44]
Magnificat primi toni [11:38]
Credo in unum Deum [13:21]
Super flumina Babylonis [7:15]
Media vita in morte sumus [7:11]
Salve regina (plainchant mode 1) [3:00]
Salve regina (diversi diversa orant) [6:34]
Epitaphium (in Josquinium a Prato) [7:36]
Oxford Camerata/Jeremy Summerly
rec. 17-18 March 2005, Chapel of Hertford College, Oxford. DDD
NAXOS 8.557732 [62:19]

Gombert’s music has already had the considerable benefit of recordings such as those by The Tallis Scholars – his eight Magnificats on two CDs from Gimell (see review) – and The Hilliard Ensemble – a miscellany on ECM. These recordings have set high standards, and shown us just how wonderful Gombert’s sacred choral music is. It is a pleasure to be able to report that this new recording from Jeremy Summerly and the Oxford Camerata is of a similarly high standard.
Born in Flanders, Gombert may well have studied with Josquin Desprez, perhaps in his final years at Condé-sur-l’Escaut. By 1526 he was a member of the Imperial Chapel Choir and travelled with Charles V in Spain, northern Italy and Austria. Around 1530 he was made magister puerorum, responsible for the boys’ choir. In 1540, however, sexual misconduct with one of the boys of that choir led to his banishment to the galleys. Later granted an Imperial pardon, he seems to have spent his last years as a canon of the Cathedral of Tournai, in modern Belgium.
As Jeremy Summerly points out in his booklet notes to this CD, the standard view that “Gombert’s music takes the transparent consonances of Josquin’s generation and muddies the harmonic waters in preparation for the rich late-sixteenth-century polyphonic style of Palestrina’s generation” runs the risk of  making Gombert sound merely “an important if rather unglamorous link between the Low and the High Renaissance”. Putting the stress on Gombert’s role as a ‘link’ all too easily leads to the ignoring of the individuality and quality of his own remarkable achievement.
Gombert is undoubtedly one of the masters of sacred polyphony.  He makes extensive use of imitation, more than his master Josquin. It was, in part, for his particular skill in the use of this technique that Hermann Finck praised Gombert in his Practica musica of 1556. It is used strikingly in the setting of Tulerunt Dominum which opens this CD. Still more remarkable is the Salve Regina. Here, in what Summerly rightly describes as “one of the finest contrapuntal achievements of any age”, Gombert creates beautiful and moving music from the interweaving and reshaping of seven Marian plainsong melodies – Alma Redemptoris Mater, Inviolata, Ave Regina, Salve Regina, Beata Mater, Ave Maria and Hortus Conclusus. The results are exquisite, the music utterly sophisticated technically speaking, disarmingly simple on the surface.
Elsewhere, the four-part motet Super flumina Babylonis is a moving and powerful setting of Psalm 136, richly expressive and various in its vocal colours; in the eight-voiced Credo textures undergo a range of subtle metamophoses. The Magnificat is a remarkable work, alternating polyphonic sections with plainchant. But Gombert seeks more than that simple pattern of contrast. In the polyphonic sections, the number of voices, and therefore the complexity of texture, is constantly changing. Four-part writing in the first two sections is replaved by three-part writing in the next; four-part writing returns, only to be succeeded by five-part and six-part writing.
It would be redundant to enumerate the quality of every single one of the pieces included on this CD. It is one of the best of all of Oxford Camerata’s recordings for Naxos, and any admirer of Renaissance polyphony needs to add it to his or her collection.
Full texts and translations are provided, and Jeremy Summerly’s notes, though relatively brief, are excellent.

Glyn Pursglove

see also review by Robert Hugill


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