Jean MOUTON (c.1458-1522)
Nesciens mater [5:37]
Ave Maria, gemma virginum [2:26]
Exsultet coniubilando [4:13]
Verbum bonum et suave [11:08]
Missa Tu es Petrus [31:02]
Bona vita, bona refectio [6:11]
Factum est silentium [5:30]
The Brabant Ensemble/Stephen Rice
rec. 16-18 August 2011, Church of St. Michael and All Angels, Summertown, Oxford.
HYPERION CDA 67933 [66.07]
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 his music.
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 Saviour.
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.
Gary Higginson 

I see no reason why anyone with an interest in Renaissance choral music shouldn’t get this straightaway.