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Nicolas GOMBERT (c.1495-1560)
Motets II
Details after review
Beauty Farm (Bart Uvyn [counter-tenor]; Adriaan De Koster, Florian Schmitt, Hannes Wagner [tenor], Joachim Höchbauer, Martin Vögerl [bass])
rec. Kartause Church, Mauerbach, Austria, 25-28 May 2016. DDD.
Texts included; no translations
FRA BERNARDO FB1612457 [56:28 + 51:06]

A small complaint first.  This looks like a recording that doesn’t want to be taken seriously: you may well think that the young lady on the cover looks as if she’s singing as a member of the team.  Not so: Beauty Farm, despite its name, is an all-male ensemble.

This is their second foray into the motets of Nicolas Gombert.  I missed its predecessor, released in  2015, and don’t have access to it, nor do we seem to have reviewed it here, but it received a warm welcome elsewhere, one reviewer mentioning them in the same breath as the Huelgas Ensemble and the Hilliard Ensemble.

Some of the group, founded as recently as 2014, have sung with the Huelgas Ensemble, Vox Luminis and Collegium Vocale Gent – all to the good in my book – but also, less promisingly, with Graindelavoix, whose bass-anchored approach to the music of this period is not at all to my taste.  Fortunately, though the two bass voices provide a strong undercurrent to the music on these CDs, the tone is very much more to my liking than that of Graindelavoix.

Gombert was something of a character.  Being sentenced to the galleys for molesting a choirboy doesn’t seem to have cramped his productivity, with some 160 motets and much other music to his credit.  His style is characterised by constant movement without pauses, so the music sounds less contemplative than you may expect for a renaissance composer, especially as Beauty Farm keep the music moving all the time.

Half of these motets are receiving their first recordings – certainly the only ones in the current catalogue.  Where I have been able to compare, Beauty Farm come out well.  The very fine Brabant Ensemble Hyperion recording entitled Tribulatio et Angustia contains splendid versions of Ave Maria, Pater noster, Ne reminiscaris, Domine and Hortus conclusus es (CDA67614 – reviewreview) and a Linn collection entitled Scattered Ashes has In te Domine speravi (CKD517, with Byrd, Clemens, Josquin, Palestrina, etc.)  I thought that I had included that Linn recording in one of my editions of Download News but it seems that I didn’t, so I’ll say here that the performances are well up to the standard that we have come to expect from Magnificat and Philip Cave and that it can be downloaded from hyperion-records.co.uk in mp3, 16- and 24-bit lossless and from linnrecords.com in the same formats plus CD and 24/192.  The programme, settings of the meditations of the ascetic Savonarola, is just over the 80-minute mark at 84:05, so runs to two CDs, sold for the price of one.

Henry’s Eight on Hyperion Helios sing O rex gloriae (CDH55323, with Missa tempori Paschali reviewDL Roundup April 2011/1).  The Hilliard Ensemble include Media vita on a recording primarily devoted to Gombert’s Mass based on that motet (ECM New Series 1884 or 9818792 – review).  That work is also included on another Hyperion recording by Henry’s Eight, now available only from the Archive Service or as a download (details below).  They sound lighter and brighter than Beauty Farm – not necessarily an advantage in this piece, though I enjoyed both of their Gombert recordings overall.

In straight comparisons the new recordings generally hold up well even against this strong opposition.  I had expected, for example, that the Hilliard recording of Media vita, a penitential text employed in the Book of Common Prayer Funeral Service1, would have been a clear first choice.  It certainly captures the spirit of the music very well – ‘In the midst of life we are in death’ – and digs deeper than Beauty Farm, with the music given much more time to breathe, but in terms of sheer beauty of performance there isn’t much to choose among any of these three accounts.

Ultimately, after two hours of listening to the Fra Bernardo CDs, I began to find the beauty a little too cloying.  If you are looking for an introduction to Gombert’s motets my first choice remains the Brabant Ensemble.  With over half of the contents not otherwise available, however, the new recording is indispensable for the renaissance specialist.  It’s advertised as a limited edition, so I recommend going for it as soon as possible, even if that means leaving the other recordings for later purchase.

If you do wish to explore Gombert further, the Hyperion Helios from Henry’s Eight is still widely on sale at around £6.50, though the series as a whole has been moved from budget to full-price.  It’s also available to download in mp3 or lossless sound, with pdf booklet, for £6.50 from hyperion-records.co.uk.  There’s an object lesson here: looking for that recording, which I reviewed in April 2011, on the external hard drive where my downloads are kept drew a blank, as did a search of my backup drive.  No problem: I have press access to download it again, which I did, and I imagine that Hyperion might take charitable view if you had purchased it once, but it’s a reminder that it’s not only those CDs at the back of a full cabinet that get lost.

I have to admit that my CD copy of the Brabant Ensemble is exactly that – at the back of the cabinet – and it was actually quicker for me to download from hyperion-records.co.uk than to scrabble around: at least I was able to work on this review while it was downloading.  It’s extremely good value currently at £6.50 on CD or as an mp3 or lossless download complete with the pdf booklet containing texts and translations and notes in Hyperion’s usually first-rate tradition.  Within minutes I was reminding myself of the very great virtues of this recording which, overall, remains my prime Gombert recommendation.  Purists may object to the use of female voices on the top line and among the altos and the use of more than one voice per part but the result is very effective.

Both the Brabant Ensemble and Beauty Farm include the 5-part Marian text from the Song of Songs, Hortus conclusus es.  The scoring is for SAATB and the greater versatility of the Brabant Ensemble – three each of sopranos and basses, four of altos and tenors – and their more measured tempo together win the day here.  With just one counter-tenor Beauty Farm presumably moved two of their tenors up to fill the alto line.  The effect is quite different: though there’s something of a gap in the sound between the top and bottom lines, I found myself liking it just as much and didn’t register the faster tempo as detracting from the performance.  The notes claim that this is the first recording to emphasise the sharp dissonances at the opening: certainly the effect is less smooth than from the Brabant singers.

I also took the opportunity of getting to know another Gombert recording from Henry’s Eight, this time one that has been relegated to the Archive Service but can also be downloaded from hyperion-records.co.uk for £8.99.  The main work is a lengthy setting of the Credo and it also contains a recording of Media vita for comparison with Beauty Farm and the Hilliard Ensemble.  At 5:59 it’s only seconds faster than the Hilliards and, like them, Henry’s Eight capture the penitential aspect better than Beauty Farm who complete it in 4:40.  That’s a rare exception, however; though they tend to drive the music a little harder throughout, Beauty Farm maintain the long Gombertian line at least as well and often better than the others.

There’s one other very worthwhile Gombert project that should be mentioned: The Tallis Scholars recorded all his late settings of the Magnificat with their antiphons on a pair of Gimell CDs (CDGIM037 – review – and CDGIM038, available separately).

The Fra Bernardo booklet is printed in white on black – not the best choice for legibility but the notes by Jorge Martin, who has edited the music, are informative and well translated.  It contains the Latin texts but no translations.  That seems to assume that Latin is as general an accomplishment now as it was in Gombert’s day.  Would that it were.  (For the classically-minded few, that’s utinam ut + subjunctive).

Despite my preference for some of the alternative recordings of half of the music on this new 2-CD set, the other half has no competition.  Those who love beautiful singing and renaissance specialists who wish to expand their acquaintance with Gombert’s music will need to go for this limited edition.  Those who have yet to discover the beauties of this under-rated composer, who usually only has a walk-on part in anthologies2, would do best to start with the Brabant Ensemble, especially as their recording is available so inexpensively when purchased directly from Hyperion.

1 The text was banned at the Council of Trent from all but one usage in the Dominican Breviary – as the antiphon to the Nunc Dimittis on the Third Sunday in Lent – because it had been misused in superstitious practices, a rare example of reformed practice allowing the use of a text regarded with suspicion by the Roman hierarchy.

2 As on the Hilliard Ensemble’s 8-CD set of Franco-Flemish Masterworks: Bargain of the Month in Download News 2014/10.  The 7digital.com download is more expensive now but still good value at £20.99 (mp3).  The CDs are reduced as I write to a very tempting £13.75 from Presto – less than £2 per disc.

Brian Wilson

Track details:

CD1
Beatus vir a6 [10:56]
Ave Maria a5 [4:15]
Pater noster a5 [4:53]
Media vita a6 [4:40]
Ego flos campi a5 [9:56]
Respice Domine a5 [7:41]
Hodie nata est a5 [5:43]
O Domine Jesu Christe a6 [8:23]

CD2
Suscipe verbum a5 [6:40]
In te Domine speravi a6 [7:02]
Patefactae sunt a5 [4:36]
Hortus conclusus es a5 [3:19]
Ego sum qui sum a6 [7:06]
O rex gloriae a6 [7:51]
Ne reminiscaris a5 [4:12]
Da pacem Domine a5 [6:19]
Conceptio tua a5 [9:22]

 




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