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Pierre de LA RUE (c.1452-1518)
Missa Nuncqua fue pena mayor [31.25]
Salve Regina VI [5.29]
Missa Inviolata [30.36]
Magnificat sexti toni [11.34]
Brabant Ensemble/Stephen Rice
rec. St. John the Baptist church, Loughton, Essex, 6-8 August 2015
HYPERION CDA68150 [78.55]

The Brabant Ensemble are as fine a choir as you will find anywhere. I am so pleased that they have recorded these masses and motets by Pierre de La Rue. This is against the background of my dissatisfaction with most of the de La Rue performances I have heard.

I have never been a fan of the performance by Gothic Voices of Missa de Feria and the Missa Sancta Dei Genetrix (Hyperion CDA67010 - review) although I liked most of the rest of their Christopher Page-directed CDs. Back in 2003 The Clerks' Group under Edward Wickham recorded the Missa De Sancta Cruce and motets on ASV GAU307 but an odd acoustic and the lack of a consistent blend have put me off listening to it more often. Of late a group I like named Cappella Pratensis have released De La Rue’s Missa cum Jocunditatante, a Challenge Records disc (CC72710) which has had some good reviews but which I have not heard. Another recording of the same work by Henry's Eight is also worth investigating (Etcetera KTC1214). A search would reveal a few other CDs but considering what a significant musician he was and how prolific, with about 30 masses and many other works which were often published by Petrucci for instance, it's curious that Pierre de La Rue is not better known or better understood. I believe this disc may well help towards that understanding.

Pierre de La Rue was a pupil of Ockeghem it seems. Whereas the older man is almost inscrutable de La Rue seems to reveal more of himself as in the early mass recorded here. He was employed by the inordinately wealthy and powerful family of Philip the Fair of the Hapsburg Burgundian court. He probably went with them to Spain c.1500; Juana, the wife of Philip, was Spanish. There is no record that he did but he certainly went in 1504. By then however the Missa Nuncqua fue pena mayor had been published by Petrucci. I have to say immediately that this mass is the most memorable and beautiful de La Rue I have ever heard. It is based on a wonderfully memorable Spanish song by Urrede or Wrrede, a Fleming who devoted his career to the Spanish court. The song beginning with the lines ‘Never was there greater pain nor torment so strange’ lies in the mode based around E but de La Rue, miraculously ends each movement on a G chord so that the melancholia engendered by the Mixolydian mode does not end each mass movement.

The second Mass, the Missa Inviolata in honour of the Virgin is equally moving. It is almost equally well sung with sensitivity to balance, subtle dynamics, freshness and clarity of tone quality. This time the major key is emphasised. As Stephen Rice comments in his excellent and analytical notes, it is a happy mass with a “sunny disposition”. The Gloria and Credo are especially clever with the use of the plainchant and the antiphonal techniques discovered between the voices. It is, like the first mass, also in four parts but some sections are ‘thinned out’ into three or even two as in the Pleni sunt caeli. The Agnus dei is wonderfully calm and poised.

The rest of the disc is made up of a motet and a glorious setting of the Magnificat in five parts in which lively counterpoint alternates with plainchant verses. The language seems to be a little more archaic than in the masses but the vocal textures are always differing and engaging. The Brabant Ensemble are, as ever, well blended and Rice paces the music just right. The four voice Salve Regina VI, one of six composed by de La Rue, is another good example of this. It is at times almost madrigalian; the phrases are beautifully arched and each entry — often de La Rue favours close imitation — is clearly articulated.

The church acoustic in the often used St. John the Baptist, Loughton is ideal for this music. This well-filled disc comes with a choir photo, full texts and little cameo drawings of furry wildlife. A must purchase for anyone with any interest in renaissance music.

Gary Higginson
Previous review: Brian Wilson (Recording of the Month)



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