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CD: MDT AmazonUK AmazonUS

Antoine BRUMEL (c.1460-?1512/13)
Missa Et ecce terrae motus, for 12 voices [47:08]
Sequentia: Dies irae, dies illa (from: Requiem Mass) [19:11]
Huelgas Ensemble/Paul van Nevel
rec. Chapel of the Irish College, Leuven, Belgium, May 1990. DDD
NEWTON CLASSICS 8802092 [66:19]

Experience Classicsonline

Connoisseurs of early music will know already that this is an oldish recording; others must strain their eyes to read the tiny print on the back cover which reveals that this is in fact a reissue by Newton of a CD that originally came out on Sony Classical in the early 1990s (Vivarte CD46348).
The good news for those who missed it the first time is that Brumel was a genius, perhaps the first truly French giant of the Renaissance and generally ranked only below Josquin, and that these are superb performances by the Huelgas Ensemble, one of many inspired recordings they made for Sony. Incredibly, Paul van Nevel has been the band's director for forty years and around fifty commercial releases. Perhaps therein lies the stimulus for their latest release on Deutsche Harmonia Mundi: 'The Art of the Cigar' (88697771422)!
Though this was, first time round, the premiere recording of Brumel's 'Earthquake' Mass - named after an antiphon text (Matthew 28:2) rather than a seismic event - there are one or two others now available, most notably by Peter Phillips' Tallis Scholars, recently re-released in a splendid four-disc box set by Gimell - see review. The Tallis Scholars' version is surprisingly different, not least because they sing - in keeping with period practice - a semitone higher than Brumel writes and the Huelgas sing, giving the latter a decidedly more darkling hue. The Huelgas are also recorded more closely, having the intimacy and warmth of a chapel rather than the Tallis Scholars' cathedral. Sound is outstandingly balanced and generally excellent, with not a sign of the age of the recordings. Given that Brumel's Mass is pretty ground-breaking for the period - not only for its twelve Apostle-symbolising voices (three per range) instead of the usual four, but for its chordal harmony blocks that anticipate later trends - both recordings should go on every collector's shopping list.
The Huelgas Ensemble offer a superior blend of shimmering voice qualities and dynamics, with heaven-sent, minimally contrapuntal lines beautifully managed. For those familiar with only a few works of this period, it might be ventured that Brumel's Mass is at times reminiscent of Thomas Tallis's famous Spem in Alium, or Striggio's recently re-discovered Missa Sopra 'Ecco Sì Beato Giorno', though it does predate them by several decades. In part this is due to the intricate, strikingly detailed sonic tapestry woven by the parts, but also to the magical wave-like nature of the slow-moving harmonies, strangely sensuous and ultimately, in the mesmerising three-part Agnus Dei, exalting.
The Dies Irae sequence comes from Brumel's Requiem Mass and is thought to be the first known polyphonic setting of the text. The melody is familiar to modern audiences through the likes of Liszt and Berlioz, though it is somewhat less tumultuous in Brumel's hands! Yet what it lacks in Hadean foreboding it makes up for in gravity: Brumel's deliberately archaic idiom heightens the piety but deepens the sombreness. Nonetheless, the Sequentia is an enthralling work of great profundity and beauty, delicately coloured by brass accompaniment and some polyphonic improvisation, peering back to Léonin and Pérotin with a mixture of reverent nostalgia and serene introspection.
Newton have at least provided new notes, informative and well written by David Fallows, with translations into German and French. Full sung texts are also provided in original Latin with an English translation. The thickness of the booklet is accounted for mainly by these translations - no further track-listing is provided, for example.
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