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Cipriano de RORE ( c.1515/1516-1565)
Illuxit nunc sacra dies, motet [27:45]
Missa Doulce mémoire [7:09]
O altitudo divitiarum [5:58]
Fratres 'Scitote' [2:25]
Missa 'a note negre' [31:17]
Brabant Ensemble/Stephen Rice
rec. 7-9 August, 2012, The Church of St Michael and All Angels, Summertown, Oxford, UK. DDD
HYPERION CDA67913 [72:34]

Cipriano de Rore is one of three major figures from the Low Countries who made significant advances in musical form and expression in the later sixteenth century. The others were Adrian Willaert (c.1490 - 1562) and Philippe Verdelot (c.1480/85 - ?1530/32). Their music is not as well known as that by composers like Josquin and Palestrina who came - roughly - before and after them although it certainly deserves to be.  

Although not immodest, de Rore's is music of great self-confidence, conviction and beauty. The lines are varied yet express a concentration that makes for compelling listening. The harmonies are clear but at the same time embellish the composer's highly original ideas. The adherence of the melodies to the spirit of the texts is remarkable. It informs our listening with a fresh and binding integrity.
Stephen Rice was awarded his Doctorate on Gombert as recently as 2004 - from Oxford. Yet he has established a fine momentum in bringing these composers to our attention with the aptly-named Brabant Ensemble. Their singing is remarkably sensitive to the crystalline substance of the music of this era. Yet it is the substance, and not the veneer, that they address with every new release. There have been almost a dozen so far.
The singers' tempi are gentle and finely-tuned though never sluggish. There is also a real sense that the dozen or so singers of the Ensemble, which was founded in 1998 and has recorded for Hyperion since 2006, are not recreating the music; still less reluctantly infusing it with new life. They are inhabiting it and performing something vibrant and robust. The Brabant Ensemble is also a true ensemble: the singers blend very well in all ways.
At the same time they respect the delicacy and focus of de Rore's textures. Listen to the individually-articulated syllables of the O altitudo divitiarum (tr.6), for instance. Rice elicits as much warmth as he does precision from his singers and that's a gift. He also focuses attention on de Rore's beautiful long lines, where freshness and evident, almost deconstructed, grace are as important as impression and agility. Both of the mass settings here are based on French chansons. That too tethers them to a vernacular in which de Rore was decidedly at home. This aspect is coupled to an appeal to the divine that almost belies the readiness of the secular madrigal, for which de Rore is best known. That's most evident in the Kyrie, say, of the longest work on the CD, the Missa 'a note negre' (tr.9). Indeed, the composer made his most lasting contribution in madrigal writing. It's necessary to appreciate this in order to understand his at times (almost) homophonic techniques in sacred music where polyphony otherwise prevailed.

Like the other composers from the North mentioned, de Rore worked chiefly in Italy. In fact the music we hear on this superb CD is full of the sun and the colour of that culture. It's not explosive or over-demonstrative: the short Fratres 'Scitote' (tr.7), for example, could also have been composed by a Taverner or a Tallis. Like most of the other pieces here, it's contained and clean without ever being severe - or sung brusquely by the Brabant Ensemble.
The Brabant’s accounts have enthusiasm and dedication as much as they unobtrusively exhibit high technical competence. It's clear in the way they attack Illuxit nunc sacra dies, motet (tr.8), for instance, just how much they are enjoying this lovely music - but not merely for its sound. Rather, for the purpose and confessional import which has survived so perceptibly in de Rore's phrasing and repetition over half a millennium.
The acoustic is as responsive as it is appropriately unspectacular. The words can all be heard. Yet there is more than a dash of welcome 'occasion', but never spurious atmosphere. The result is performances of sober devotion, which is surely entirely in keeping with the composer's intent.
The booklet is to Hyperion's usual standards: some thumbnail photographs of the performers as well as brief essays (by Rice) on de Rore and his music and the complete texts in Latin and English.
Mark Sealey