This even-tempered yet penetrative account of music from the
sixteenth century in the period between the death of Josquin
and the glories of Lassus is a reissue from 1996 of Hyperion
CDA66943. The music of Gombert, Clemens non Papa, Adrian Willaert,
Morales and so on was by no means nondescript, however. It was
full of innovation; without it there could have been no Palestrina.
In harmony, sense of forward movement and expansive, generous
structure these composers wrote music which is every bit as
complete and satisfying as that of the giants who surrounded
Yet their music - including the five wonderful pieces on this
CD - needs calm, steady and incisive performance to reveal its
strengths. It needs to be performed with reference chiefly to
itself, and not its (perceived) place in history. This is precisely
what Henry's Eight and the soloists do; and very well too. Not
only is each syllable clear, each articulation, attack of vowel,
consonant and consonant cluster - including some pretty sibilant
ones at times but without distraction - audible throughout.
They're expressed solely in the interests of carrying the weight
of the texts, and not creating undue effect. The central Credo
of the main Missa Tempore Paschali [tr.5], for example,
never suffers from being mere exposition; but its import, its
burden as an act of unquestioning faith gently but unambiguously
moves the movement forward to the final 'Amen' in such a way
that celebrants can have been in no doubt why they had met to
This clarity and depth are helped by a generous and appropriately
spacious, though contained, acoustic; and a crisp, focused recording.
One is tempted to long for the space and extra dimensions of
surround sound or even SACD. But so skilful are the Hyperion
engineers, that perspective, emphasis, highlights and proportions
are all present in the exact measure necessary to bring out
to the full the singers' working of Gombert's frequent yet unexpected
chromaticism, his long lines, his varied phrasing and overall
sense of structure and sense of tempi … listen to the
way the short but very telling In illo tempore [tr.6]
comes to an end. Nothing is left hanging. The singers make no
more drama out of this movement than is there in the first place.
Yet they also leave nothing out.
We know little of the life of Nicolas Gombert; at times dissolute,
he seems to have had enough charisma - and maybe his music does,
as well - to win a pardon from Charles V at one point. Travelled
widely in Europe, the composer absorbed and was quietly influenced
by a multitude of styles, especially Italian, and at a time
when the particularly sublime sound of the Low Countries was
gaining ground. It's hard to say whether this or Gombert's own
musical predisposition accounts for his preference for sound
- short phrasing and a preference for melisma - over purely
transparent textual settings. Nevertheless, the singing on this
CD achieves a particularly felicitous balance. It’s one
that is to be welcomed.
There's only one other recording of the Mass, with the Huelgas
Ensemble under Paul van Nevel from 1993 on the Sony Classical
Vivarte Series (48249). That recording has other secondary works.
Here Brown has chosen to follow a practice which we know is
authentic … inserting other choral movements by Gombert
before and after the Credo, Benedictus and before
the sublime Agnus Dei. This is, by the way, a movement
whose treatment of polyphony for once anticipates the more 'total'
sounds of Palestrina and his contemporaries. Indeed, the Mass
progresses from six to eight to twelve parts. Yet these singers
still manage to pick their way through the rich and resonant,
though not dense, choral writing and present a very clear sound.
Given the quite prolific output of Gombert, or at least the
number of his works that have survived, he's underrepresented
on disc. This is an all the more welcome addition to the catalogue.
Add the idiomatic, measured yet expressive and technically translucent
and convincing singing styles which Henry's Eight and soloists
bring, the acoustic and an informative set of liner-notes -
if in a font that's too small to read comfortably - with the
texts in Latin and English translation and you have a real winner.