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Nicolas GOMBERT (c.1500-1557)
Music from the Court of Charles V
Regina cœli - Marian Antiphon for 12 Voices [6:13]
In te domine speravi - Motet for Six Voices [8:04]
Media vita - Motet for Six Voices [5:13]
Tous les regretz - Chanson for Six Voices [3:33]
Je prens congie - Chanson for Eight Voices [5:42]
Magnificat secundi toni [10:44]
Missa tempore paschali – Eastertide Mass for Six, Eight and Twelve Voices [36:14]
Huelgas Ensemble/Paul van Nevel
rec. Chapel of the Irish College, Leuven, Belgium, 15-17 January 1992. DDD.
Texts and translations included
Presto CDR
SONY SK48249 [75:46]

We owe a debt of gratitude to Presto for saving brands like this from undeserved burning – actually an inappropriate expression because these special CDs are burned from the manufacturer’s files and made available reasonably priced for those unwilling or unable to download the music, otherwise the only way to obtain it. All the original documentation is provided; as Presto say, it’s almost indistinguishable from the original – the printing of the booklet, inlay and CD label is just a trifle brighter than I recall from Sony originals. In this case, none of the downloads that I checked offers the booklet, so that makes the Presto special CD very … special. At £12.75, it costs just pennies more than the lossless download – indeed, some download suppliers charge more.

None of that matters unless the material is worth preserving. That’s very much the case with another recent Presto special, a 2-CD set of Corelli’s ground-breaking Op.6 concerti grossi in classic performances from The English Concert and Trevor Pinnock which can still very much hold their own (DG Archiv 4749072 – review: Recommended review).

If The English Concert’s recordings were ground-breaking, so were those of the Huelgas Ensemble in the field of vocal music – I should say ‘are’ because they are still recording: a recent release The Magic of Polyphony includes their latest thoughts on some of the music on the Sony/Presto CD, the 12-part Regina cœli and the 6- and 8-part Agnus Dei from the Missa tempore paschali, together with music by Lassus and other contemporaries – and Bruckner: Deutsche Harmonia Mundi 19075970012).

Before the arrival of van Nevel’s recording, on the Sony Vivarte label, very little attention had been paid to the music of Gombert by comparison with Josquin, who is believed to have been his teacher. This collection of music composed for Emperor Charles V did much to restore the high reputation that he had held in his own time. Where much polyphonic music of the time lifts us up to the vaulted ceiling of a college or cathedral chapel, that of Gombert is more notable for the richness of its texture, in up to twelve parts, and the Huelgas Ensemble, with their beautifully blended tone – still a feature of their more recent recordings – weaves the listener into that texture.

Van Nevel allows the music time to make its point, as in the opening Regina cœli; I notice that they now take that a little faster. That makes a good introduction to the Sony recording, but the main interest is the Easter Mass, thought to be an early work, which pays tribute to Brumel by quoting the latter’s Eastertide Et ecce terrę motus or ‘Earthquake’ Mass (recorded by The Tallis Scholars on a 2-for-1 bargain, The Tallis Scholars sing Flemish Masters, CDGIM211 – CD or download from hyperion-records.co.uk).

There is one other complete recording of the Gombert Easter Mass, from Henry’s Eight and Jonathan Brown on Hyperion (CDH55323 – review April 2011/1), where it’s punctuated by other pieces by Gombert. That’s essentially complementary to the Sony recording, because it also contains an alternative setting of the Magnificat in the third and fourth tones. The Hyperion recording can be obtained on CD or downloaded with pdf booklet from hyperion-records.co.uk for £6.50. Other providers, please note – Hyperion always include the booklet.

I thought that Henry’s Eight made the music so heart-achingly beautiful that one could understand why the reformers of the sixteenth century believed that the music could divert thoughts from the significance of the words, but for composers like Tallis and Byrd – and even Palestrina – to turn to a plainer style of writing must have been a real wrench. Such music needs to be taken slowly and calmly, and that’s just how it’s treated by both the Huelgas Ensemble and Henry’s Eight, the latter a little faster, but still true to the soul of the music, and that’s a spiritual experience in its own right.

I find it hard to decide between the slightly brisker treatment by Henry’s Eight and the marginally more thoughtful approach from the Huelgas Ensemble. The acoustic on Hyperion produces a slightly cleaner sound, but, again, there’s not much in it. With the Hyperion on offer at such an attractive price, and including other music by Gombert, you may well choose both. At the same time, you may also consider other fine recordings of Gombert’s music by The Tallis Scholars (Gimell) and The Brabant Ensemble (Hyperion) which can be obtained on CD or as downloads from hyperion-records.co.uk.

Even if, like me, you can’t decide which version of the Mass to prefer, the Huelgas recording of the Magnificat alone would be enough to clinch the deal. It’s an alternatim setting – one verse in chant, the next in polyphony – and here again the polyphony receives a dignified treatment which takes us into the heart of the rich textures. Even in the 5-part sections, each strand is clearly woven into the whole.

The recording, made in 20-bits, holds up as well as do the performances. The booklet, too, is well worth having – its absence from any download is criminal – though some of the translations are rather odd: the writer is unable, for example, whether to address God as ‘thou’ or ‘you’ and whereas the Latin Creed is in the traditional first person singular, the translation gives us the modern plural.

Whether you choose this welcome Presto reissue of the Huelgas Ensemble recording or the Hyperion of Henry’s Eight – better still both – this music offers an uplifting experience.

Brian Wilson



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