Presumably there will come a time when all Renaissance composers and their music will all be known and all be fully appreciated; and the beauty, profundity and significance of their work recognized in the way that those of later periods – particularly the nineteenth century – are. Until then, it is probably necessary, certainly advisable, to offer a nudge to such extraordinary giants as Jean Mouton, who was born before 1459 (by 1483 he was a priest, for which the minimum age is known to have been 25) and died in 1522 after a career that saw elevation after elevation. Correspondingly, unknown treasures await the open-minded listener.
That's exactly what this superb CD aims to do. It contains of all music in eight parts which can safely be attributed to Mouton is – including the sumptuous and tremendously satisfying mass, Tu es Petrus, itself Mouton's only such work from a total of 15 not in four parts. The highly accomplished Brabant Ensemble, which was founded in 1998 specifically to explore the music of the period's lesser known composers, is on top form in this CD containing seven works by Mouton. Their conductor, Stephen Rice, a performer, conductor, educator and musicologist in the best of such traditions leads the dozen or so-strong Oxford-based singers through this wonderful repertoire with a mix of admirably appropriate qualities.
In these performances the music really shines. There is a luminosity and clarity, a light and penetration that make listening strangely easy yet at the same time that invites us to delve slightly more deeply into the idiom. Pauses count for more; changes in texture (such as in the development of Gloria of the Mass [tr.6], where density and singularity exchange focus – but never in competition) acquire greater significance; shifting tempi convey meaning. Rice seems to be asking us to listen past the polyphonic wall all the way to the music's heart.
Rice and his singers are also more than adept at bringing out the intricacies, the ingeniousness and carefully-wrought musical movement and structure, particularly of the longer pieces. Yet the rigor needed to reflect and honor Mouton's invention never interferes with a certain vivacious spontaneity – in the pace and projection of joy in the Mass's Osanna [tr.8], for instance – that really brings it to life. At the same time, the upper voices caress our ears to offer the music in its most intimate and undecorated form. But without in any way cloying, or imposing. Nor is this an approach that says, "Take it or leave it". The music is so special that Rice and the Brabant Ensemble have its measure fully. It hardly needs emphasizing. And they know it. Indeed, Mouton's music is "clean" and open enough to need nothing more than intelligent exposition. This is just what the Ensemble does here.
Where the music demands a sense of drama, it's there, though not over-lit or over-sounded. It emerges from the texts. Where there is magic (in the textures, for example), it's obvious, though – again – it's magic inherent in the musical lines and harmonies, not a forced emphasis on the sound. At the same time, Rice is at pains to let the music dictate the pace and tone with which it seems to unfold… the jog and lilt with which they perform Bona vita, bona refectio [tr.10], for example, reflect the more earthly pleasures and studied – yet not at all impure – absence of asceticism of the occasion, perhaps, for which it must have been written.
These performers do Mouton a great service by (thus) suggesting and illustrating the variety of styles and skills of the composer's thought and writing. No wonder he rose to multiple positions of influence, esteem and regard amongst fellow musicians, pupils (of whom Adrian Willaert was probably the most prominent) and the state and church. For all Mouton's devotion, dedication and emphatically in the service of those who "commissioned" it and were his partons and employers, his music is delightful, real, colorful, genuine, rounded and full of life. Rice and the singers of the Brabant Ensemble convey this richness extremely well. It's obvious that they are enjoying every minute of singing: the lightness and pleasure that pervades every bar of Factum est silentium [tr.11], for instance, blends holiness with a down-to-earth practicality which give the music all the more impact.
This very purposeful flexibility and adaptability of Rice and the Brabant Ensemble are yet other strikingly pleasing qualities that make this CD such a gem. Theirs is no tour through the work of an otherwise obscure composer's work merely because it's there. At the same time, respect and true comprehension of Mouton's life, priorities and work are to the fore in how the performers have approached the repertoire. Innate musicianship is met with delight, clarity and even a touch of unproprietorial closeness to and pride in the genre. It's justified and a pleasure to experience.
The acoustic (the church of St Michael and All Angels, Summertown, Oxford) is nicely reverberant and carries just the right amount of atmosphere. There is a peace and sense of being enclosed which is appropriate to the music here. The booklet, which contains all the texts in Latin and English translation, has useful contextual information and annotation both on the manuscript sources and the music's mensuration. All in all, this is a splendid production. It's one which lovers of Renaissance choral polyphony will want to add to their collection immediately. Nesciens mater excepted, these are the only recordings of this glorious music and are thoroughly and unreservedly recommended.
Copyright © 2012, Mark Sealey.