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Hilliard Ensemble and Nicolas Gombert

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Nicolas Gombert, Missa Media Vita in Morte Sumus and motets, Hilliard Ensemble, ECM New Series 1884 (released January 10, 2006)
When I was an undergraduate music student, we had to purchase a set of LPs for our listening assignments. This was the late 1980s, and David Munrow's pioneering work in performing medieval and Renaissance music was still fairly new. We didn't have that many recordings of that music to listen to, and the ones we had were not always exactly pleasant on the ears. When I got to graduate school in the 90s, I was hooked on early music and was thrilled to hear recordings by new groups like the Tallis Scholars, Ensemble Organum, and the Hilliard Ensemble. I remember quite clearly listening for the first time to the Hilliard Ensemble's stunning recording of Thomas Tallis's settings of the Holy Week readings from Lamentations. That group has just released its latest recording, devoted to the music of Nicolas Gombert, one of those Renaissance composers musicologists have been pushing for decades. You probably will not be surprised to hear that I have been relishing listening to this disc -- actually recorded back in May 2002 in the Propstei St. Gerold, a monastery in the mountains of Austria -- since it came from ECM earlier this month.

The recording is anchored around Gombert's 5-voice Missa Media Vita in Morte Sumus, an imitation Mass rather freely based on his own motet in 6 voices, Media Vita in Morte Sumus (In the midst of life we are in death), which is the disc's first track, followed immediately by the Kyrie and Gloria of the Mass. According to the program notes by Jonathan Wainwright, the motet is based on the responsory version of this text. That responsory was a late creation that made its way into the Liber Usualis, but I don't think it has any medieval bona fides. (If you want to get technical, it does not appear as a responsory in Hesbert's Corpus antiphonalium officii or any of the CANTUS manuscripts.) The text of Gombert's motet, however, does match exactly with a relatively common antiphon, found in Lent in some manuscripts and in the Office for the Dead in others. Five other motets round out this 76-minute disc, three of them in honor of the Virgin Mary (one of Gombert's settings of Salve Regina, and two on texts from the Song of Songs), one in praise of the cross (O crux splendidior), and the memorial motet Musae Iovis in honor of Josquin Desprez, who may have been Gombert's teacher. In that sense, it's a liturgical mixed bag, but it does offer a nice cross-section of Gombert's musical style.

Gombert on Ionarts:

Early Music Festival: Chantry and Piffaro (June 5, 2005)

Woodley Ensemble at the National Cathedral (May 3, 2004)
That style is dense, relying heavily on imitation, which gets thick when a composer is working with five or six voices, as Gombert was in most of the tracks on this disc. Even with the long text of the Credo, Gombert does not take any shortcuts, leading to a length of over 10 glorious minutes. It was exactly this sort of polyphony -- so complex musically that the text is often obscured -- that came under criticism during the Council of Trent and that Palestrina's more transparent polyphonic style was intended to right in the following generation. Dissonances abound in Gombert's music, by comparison to that of Palestrina, because Gombert was generally thinking in terms of individual lines more than in a vertical sense of harmony. The same thing that so intrigued me on the Hilliard Ensemble's recording of Tallis's Lamentations -- cross-relations, dissonant clashes that arise when voices make sense linearly but not in relation to one another -- is here, too, rendered superlatively by the Hilliard Ensemble, for example, in the motet O crux splendidior.

It's not that the Hilliard Ensemble's sound is always perfect or ever was. The group is all men, which as I mentioned in my review of the Suspicious Cheese Lords may not always be the most satisfying sound, in terms of treble parts, but it does bring you closer to this music's origins. There is something woolen or cloaked about the way the Hilliard sound is recorded, but the stark harmonies and cross-relations are carefully tuned. Countertenor David James's sound is edging toward strident at times on this recording (in several places near the end of the Gloria, for example, the secunda pars of the Salve Regina, and the final track, Musae Iovis), but this is overall still a magnificent vocal ensemble. The Hilliard has a hypnotic sound, skewed perhaps toward the bass and sometimes murky, but wrapped in priestly mystery. You will rarely hear final chords so flawlessly tuned, settled, calm, unchanging, and perfectly suited to their role as conclusion.

The Mass's source motet is a good example of Gombert's layered technique. He uses the six voices almost constantly, with few breaks at all, let alone the long alternations of small subsets of parts found commonly in Palestrina's music. The Salve Regina included here is a worthy find, an extended (8'44") meditation that fully explores the nuances of each fragment of this famous Marian text. Gombert's other setting of this text, not recorded here, is a virtuosic pastische of cantus firmus treatment, mixing together the Salve Regina chant with several other Marian chants. What I wrote recently about the intellectual nature of Bach's music, that "there is a level of beauty [...] underneath the mere sound of the notes that only the mind can appreciate," can also be applied here. Gombert's music is knotted with contrapuntal imitation, paraphrase and quotation of chant or other melodies, and harmonic complexity. Underneath the beauty of what one merely hears, as in so much Renaissance music, is another level of intellectual beauty, although perhaps not to the same degree as the king of intellectual complexity, Johannes Ockeghem.

It's a wonder that Gombert was able to publish most of the music on this disc while he was in prison. In the midst of an exalted career as a leading member and composer for the Holy Roman Emperor's chapel, which involved travelling among several countries to the various imperial residences, Gombert was convicted of molesting one of the boy singers under his direction. He spent several years imprisoned on a ship at sea, although apparently conditions were not miserable enough to prevent him from continuing to compose. (This was an age, unlike our own, when the Church punished rather than protected its own sexual offenders, at least in this case.) After he was released, Gombert went into retirement and lived the remainder of his life as a canon at the Cathedral of Tournai.

The best reason to buy this disc, other than the gorgeous singing, is that these works by Gombert are for the most part not available elsewhere. This set of Gombert tracks must be ranked with the best recordings of this lesser-known composer's music, the two-disc set of Gombert's extraordinary Magnificat settings -- the pieces that eventually won Gombert his release from prison -- by the Tallis Scholars. As more people listen to these first-rate performances, they will appreciate Gombert's music more, too. Choral directors should know that the complete works of Gombert were edited by Joseph Schmidt-Görg, published as vol. 6 of Corpus mensurabilis musicae. That's ten volumes of sacred music and a two-in-one volume of secular songs. Get to work.

The Hilliard Ensemble, joined by bass Robert Macdonald from the recording, will be embarking on a tour of the United States later this month. They will be in Los Angeles (at the Getty, January 21); Portland, Oreg. (January 22 and 23); Cincinnati (January 25); Lexington, Ky. (January 27); Richmond, Va. (where we will try to hear them perform, on January 28); and New York (Corpus Christi Church, January 29).

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you very much for this remarkable review. I myself must still wait for few days to hear this Gombert recording at last. And do not try, but do hear the Hilliards perform, they sound even better at their concerts than on the recordings (though I have no idea how this is possible).

My best regards,
(asoio at wp dot pl)