I’ve waxed lyrical before about the Brabant Ensemble. There was a wholly
admirable a disc of motets by Morales (Hyperion
CDA67694). Last year their performance of the Requiem by
Clemens non Papa (Hyperion
CDA67848) was outstanding. Stephen Rice extracts from his
singers a pure sound but one that is full of expression. Vibrato
is used by each singer but discreetly and the sense of ensemble
is second to none.
With both of those earlier discs I had no queries about the
music itself. However some reviewers felt in relation to Phinot’s
Missa Si bona suscepimus (Hyperion CDA 67696) that this
composer was not consistent in inspiration or in production
of arresting ideas. To a certain extent I felt the same about
Jean Mouton. That said, as a result of this disc, I have now
altered my views and am pleased that such fine singers are tackling
The standard textbooks seem to ignore Mouton’s existence.
Even Gustav Reese’s famous tome Music in the Middle
Ages turns a blind eye. If you’ve heard of him at
all it may because of his oft-recorded motet Nesciens Mater
that opens the bowling on this disc. On the other hand it may
be, as Stephen Rice’s excellent booklet notes admit, because
we have come across the joyous Noe, Noe psallite or the
evocative Queramus cum pastoribus. All three are Christmas
motets. The latter two are not recorded here. Rice takes the
opportunity to make and offer some discoveries instead. Nesciens
Mater is one of the most serenely striking motets of the
renaissance. One might simply sit back and wallow in its eight-part
sound but that sound is the result of an extraordinary canon
8-á-4; only the best will do to honour the birth of our
As a good example of Stephen Rice’s approach listen to
the motet Factum est Silentium written in honour of St.
Michael. It is a dramatic piece deservedly revived and rippling
with excitement. Here is a choir which imposes appropriate dynamic
shadings where the text demands and these consistently add interest.
For example, after the initial salvo is over everything pauses
for breath in the shape of the more thoughtful Salut, honor
et virtus before it takes off again at a commanding forte.
At the words Ignosce Domino, Deus noster we have a hushed
series of chords sung piano. So many choirs think that
dynamics in Renaissance music work via osmosis: that is that
the composer will have thinned the texture or lowered the tessitura
to obtain volume contrast. That may be true to an extent but
often dynamics need to be imposed. That is what happens here
and with real success.
The main work on the disc is the Missa: Tu Es Petrus.
This is the composer’s only five-part mass - he left us
fifteen - in which unusually the plainchant melody is placed
in one of the soprano parts. This gives the texture a light,
airy feel suitable for the feast day for which it may have been
intended: 29 June. In the Agnus even the tenors are asked
to sing their line up a fourth. There are passages, such as
in the Christe, when a part or two is omitted, again
lifting the texture. There are a number of moments when the
music just treads water. Not surprisingly this tends to occur
in the longer movements and the attention wanes due to a great
deal of close imitation. Even so, it’s good to hear this
sunny mass. Without a doubt it’s a piece that I will return
to quite often.
The major mode is also used for the motet Bona Vita, bona
refectio (Good feast, good drink). The text is also used
as a motet and a parody mass by Lassus. The Mouton work is an
excitable piece. It appears to confirm what most of us have
always thought: that clergy dinners are decidedly convivial
and rowdy affairs.
Each of the above motets is in four parts but, like Nesciens
Mater there are three others, also in eight parts. Verbum
bonum et suave is a motet for the Annunciation (25 March).
It’s a compositional tour de force lasting over
eleven minutes. Intonation, as you might expect, is perfect.
There are some tricky false relations to negotiate and other
awkward corners. However, the somewhat relentless closely moving
polyphony does induce tiredness. Even so, one of Mouton’s
fingerprints is that he rarely repeats text so it flows and
carries you along in its flood. Also the best is saved until
last with a glorious A-men.
The gem of this entire collection is the plangent Ave Maria,
gemma virginum - another canon, this time 8-á-4.
It’s in D minor according to Rice’s notes which
may account for its quite gripping sound-world. Equally impressive
is Exsultet coniubilando which, with its double cantus
firmi and its gloriously fluent polyphony. It was written
as a ‘state motet’, as Rice describes it, for Pope
Leo X for whom Mouton worked following a career mainly in France
- specifically in Grenoble. His promotion to papal composer
was clearly well deserved. It is to be hoped that Leo X appreciated
the genius of this work which I won’t spoil now. Stephen
Rice spills a great deal of enthusiastic ink in its description.
I see no reason why anyone with an interest in Renaissance choral
music shouldn’t get this straightaway but can I suggest
you order it from your local record shop: one I used to love
visiting has of late sold up. A great pity.