Nicolas GOMBERT (c.1495-c.1560)
Missa Tempore Paschali:-
Magnificat Octavi Toni [11:23]
Missa Tempore Paschali for 6 voices [35:55]
Adonai, Domine Iesu Christe [5:58]
In illo tempore [4:54]
O Rex gloriae [7:21]
Robin Blaze (counter-tenor); Toby Watkin (tenor); Giles Underwood (bass)
Henry's Eight/Jonathan Brown
29-31 December 1996 Ante-Chapel, Trinity College Cambridge DDD
HYPERION HELIOS CDH55323 [65:31]
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 them chronologically.
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 worship.
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.
A splendid, idiomatic, persuasive yet appropriately reserved account of Gombert's great Mass … a very desirable CD.