Program: #17-16, Air Date: 04/10/17Josquin, more rare sacred works of Gombert, and the impact of Savanarola.
I. Gombert Motets II (Beauty Farm) Fra Bernardo CDFB 1612457.
From Stephen Midgley: After the success of their first two-disc collection of motets by Nicolas Gombert, the oddly-named Beauty Farm ensemble now brings us a second volume consisting of seventeen more five- and six-voice motets. As with the first volume, many of these are again first-ever recordings. Beauty Farm are an Austrian-based six-voice male vocal ensemble; while there are a couple of changes in the personnel since volume I, the overall balance of voices remains virtually the same with countertenor, three tenors, baritone and bass. They produce a rich and extremely satisfying vocal texture and, what's more, they sing with unerring style and unarguable conviction.
The choice of works over these two discs is fascinating and carefully judged. The opening 'Beatus vir' is a superb masterpiece, remarkable in line and texture and a stunning example of the art of this most technically refined of renaissance composers. Gombert's constantly developing polyphonic lines evolve inexorably, in perpetual imitation yet devoid of repetition. The single-themed texts of these motets - unlike the varied and more rambling narrative text of the Mass or of some other liturgical forms - make them the ideal format for Gombert's single-minded, seemingly self-propelling musical structures.
With less of the concern for surface attractiveness and melodic grace of many of his contemporaries, you could say that Gombert's style is an acquired taste. But once you're hooked, it's virtually irresistible - and for me this is certainly the case with 'Beatus vir' and several other works in this collection. To mention just a handful of other striking examples, 'Respice Domine' (CD1, track 6) is remarkable for its eloquent penitential character combined with unremitting forward movement. 'O Domine Jesu Christe' (1/8) is another masterpiece, notable for its wide-ranging lines and its variety of pace - unusual for Gombert - in the middle section.
The first disc is relatively strong on misery and penitence, with several of the works characterised by arrestingly dissonant opening phrases - although not exclusively so. The nine works of the second CD, however, brighten the mood somewhat. Again the opening work, 'Suscipe verbum', is a stunner, its relatively slow progress allowing full appreciation of the rich harmonies. 'Hortus conclusus est' (2/4) has an unusual and arresting opening, and the development of its material is full of attention-grabbing dissonances. 'Ego sum qui sum', one of my own favourites, sets a poignant moment in the resurrection narrative, and the result is absolutely beautiful (2/5). This is one of the few works here to have been recorded a couple of times before – once on a gorgeous disc by Nordic Voices, 'Reges terrae’ Reges Terrae: Music From the Time of Charles V, and also in a superb programme from Philip Cave's Magnificat ensemble, with Philippe Rogier's beautiful parody Mass on Gombert's motet and also including the motet itself Philippe Rogier: Missa Ego sum qui sum.
One aspect of Gombert's motets that is well demonstrated by the present collection is the more extended scale of many of the works compared to the average renaissance motet; many of those here are 8 or 10 minutes long, reflecting Gombert's undaunted ingenuity in exploring his thematic material through complex, closely woven and constantly varying structures. A small booklet editing error could be noted, however: the final work, 'Conceptio tua', is actually 4 minutes long rather than the 9 minutes listed.
Recorded sound, in the Carthusian monastery church of Auerbach, Austria, is vivid and fairly close; good stereo systems might possibly pick up the occasional background traffic noise, but overall the ambience is superb with pleasantly noticeable reverberation. Booklet notes are a bit on the brief side, but the comments on each motet do home in on the most distinctive features of each work and are thus pertinent and helpful. Latin texts are given, but no translations – something of a nuisance, but still a lot better than the total textlessness afflicting some other minor recording labels.
Overall, then, this second Gombert volume is deeply rewarding in both music and performance, and as such it should delight renaissance enthusiasts as much as the first – and hopefully even attract the interest of other adventurous listeners too. The singers of Beauty Farm certainly make an outstanding case for the composer's music, although if some cavilling is in order I could mention two points. One is an occasional unsteadiness in some voices on some notes; and the other is that at times, for me at least, the singing lacks the last ounce of delicacy and sensitivity which some other ensembles manage to bring to renaissance music – often aided by the presence of female voices on the top lines. Is this a sexist comment? Possibly, but if so then please feel free to challenge it! Or perhaps the presence of a conductor’s hand and ear would fulfil the same purpose.
Be that as it may, the style, texture and vocal balance of these singers is irreproachable, and they do succeed in capturing the essence of the composer's unique qualities. So in my view they are turning out to be probably the finest advocates of Gombert on the recording scene at present. I would dearly love to hear them perform the Eight Magnificats, for example, but in any case I hope they'll keep on bringing us more of the works of this extraordinary Franco-Flemish master.
1 Beatus vir a 6
2 Ave Maria a 5
3 Pater noster a 5
4 Media vita a 6
5 Ego flos campi a 5
6 Respice Domine a 5
7 Hodie nata est a 5
8 O Domine Jesu Christe a 6
1 Suscipe verbum a 5
2 In te Domine speravi a 6
3 Patefactae sunt a 5
4 Hortus conclusus es a 5
5 Ego sum qui sum a 6
6 O rex gloriae a 6
7 Ne reminiscaris a 5
8 Da pacem Domine a 5
9 Conceptio tua a 5
II. Josquin Desprez—Messes Pange Lingua/de Beata Virgine (Ensemble vocaux Métamorphoses et Biscantor!/Maurice Bourbon). Arre-se CD AR 2015-1.
Choir leader, singing teacher, singer and composer, Maurice Bourbon leads three vocal ensembles as the art director of the Chapelle des Flandres Association - Métamorphoses, a vocal ensemble of international soloists, Coeli et Terra, a top-level chamber choir, and Biscantor!, a vocal ensemble of young adults, founded respectively in 1983, 1987 and 2005.
Ever since the beginning of his career, Maurice Bourbon has been focused on analysis and research, first as an engineer at the École des Mines in Paris and a researcher in sedimentology at the French national centre for scientific research (CNRS) then later as a musician.
With the creation of Métamorphoses in 1983, Maurice Bourbon acquired the perfect tool for the interpretation of masterpieces of the a cappella repertoire, either choosing composers that are renowned (Gesualdo, Monteverdi, Bach) or less famous (Antoine de Bertrand). Through his rigorous analysis of the different mechanics of music and the lyricism of his singers, he aims to reproduce both its most complex features and flamboyant harmony. After his production of Bach’s motets a cappella, the only existing interpretation of its kind, Bourbon was able to express himself completely with the masses of Josquin Desprez, which he decided to record entirely. The present CD is the fourth in a series of ten.
With Biscantor!, whose name brings to mind the stunning Franco-Flemish virtuoso singers, professionals who were accustomed to the subtleties of vocal polyphony and were often also composers, like Desprez, Maurice Bourbon seeks to educate young talented polyphonist singers (aged 18 to 28) before training the most promising of them for the rigors of professional vocal polyphony. For instance, four singers of Biscantor! took part in the present volume, alongside the experienced singers of Métamorphoses.
Missa Pange Lingua
Missa de Beata Virgine
Nicolas Gombert, Josquin Desprez
CDFB 1612457, CD AR 2015-1