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CD Review

Antoine Brumel

Missa de beata virgine

  • Nato canunt omnia
  • Beata es, Maria
  • Lauda Sion salvatorem
  • Ave caelorum domina
  • Missa de beata virgine
The Brabant Ensemble/Stephen Rice
Hyperion CDA68065
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Antoine Brumel (c.1460 to c.1513) is a contemporary of Josquin, Pierre de La Rue, Clement Janequin and Nicolas Gombert. There are five examples of his choral polyphony to be enjoyed on this CD from Hyperion. They are performed with aplomb and verve (though with true enthusiasm – never swagger) by specialists in the field, The Brabant Ensemble, under Stephen Rice. These pieces are typical of the energy blended with beauty in which Brumel excelled.

Three of these five works (Beata es, Maria, Ave caelorum domina and the four-voice setting of the Missa de beata virgine) are currently available only on this recording. Brumel's most famous work, the Missa "Et ecce terrae motus" (the "Earthquake Mass"), has nine recordings. So it's good to have performances of such high quality as these broadening the field. It is to be hoped, too, that it will extend the composer's appeal to more collectors. Performing of the quality evident here from the first bar certainly deserves to do so. In fact, such unassuming advocacy is a stated aim of this release. So the variety and color, the focus and sheer delight which the dozen or so strong British Brabant Ensemble performs this music is all the more welcome.

These performers convey very successfully the world of a composer who is working with the possibilities of the many musical developments at the start of the Sixteenth Century – and very much making them his own. At that time sequential vocal writing gave way to the flowing simultaneity which found its apotheosis in the music of Palestrina. Indeed, such major changes can actually be seen throughout the course of Brumel's career itself. They can even be detected across the works on this CD. Yet the Brabant Ensemble presents us with music to be enjoyed, and music infused with measured exaltation first and foremost. It lives; it's not an example of a treatise.

We don't know so much about Brumel's life as we would surely wish. Working in Geneva as well as France and Italy, he was one of the first members of the Franco-Flemish School who was truly French. Although his style blends rhythmic complexity with lyricism, that doesn't necessarily mirror the variety of approaches prevailing in those regions and cultures. Rather – as these performances clearly attest – Brumel had such self-confidence and originality that he was able to deal deftly with those aspects of vocal writing which best expressed the essence of the text… tension, pathos, pity, adoration, tenderness, awe and devotion in particular. These are all evident in the singing of each of these pieces.

Rice and his small forces circumscribe music whose freedom in expressing melodic line is nevertheless supported by clear structure. The result is that each piece is heard as self-contained. This is a particular achievement of the Ensemble and Rice. Like the altar pieces contemporaneous with Brumel, the allusion to the wider world is framed. That's because these are works of art, not simulacra. As the last notes of each piece on this CD die away, you are struck by the craft and thought that has gone into its realisation precisely in the interests of offering us the elevation which the texts imply. It's interesting to speculate that this penetrative style might have been that of the singers of Brumel's time, of whom we know he was one. Focus, precision, direction. And all obvious from the Ensemble's approach.

The Lauda Sion salvatorem [tr.3] is the longest single movement; it's a good example of all these qualities. It sets text celebrating the divinity of the transubstantiated host. Yet neither Brumel's writing, nor the lucid singing of the Brabant Ensemble, is florid; or limp. On the other hand the work – in common with the others here – does have a controlled transcendant quality which can only originate in confidence and experience. The longest whole work here is the Missa de beata virgine itself, which is probably a late work, from 1510 or even after. It's based on plainsong, of course, and forms part of the Marian genre that uses a collection of melodies. Each movement is in a different mode. It too has the ineluctable rhythm so characteristic of Brumel – almost to the extent that a sense of percussiveness, rather than harmony, defines our experience… the "Amen" at the end of the Gloria [tr.6] and "Gloria tua" in the Sanctus [tr.8] are perhaps the best examples.

The angularity (albeit gentle and intentionally curbed) of Brumel's writing, though, is not emphasized at the expense of a richer expressivity by these performers. The singing embraces the listener, rather than holds them at a distance. It shows us, too, how sure of his craft Brunel was. Given that he even composed instrumental music as well as chansons and motets, Brunel's ability to explore musical effects and techniques otherwise ignored by his contemporaries – particularly his use of cross-rhythms – is quite startling at times. Though always sung here in a way that's fully in keeping with the composer's overall aims.

The acoustic of the Church of St Michael and All Angels, Summertown, in Oxford is a sympathetic one. There is never excessive resonance, though neither is it particularly warm. Every word can still be heard. Stephen Rice's accompanying notes are highly informative; and the text in Latin and English is reproduced. If this is repertoire you enjoy, then this CD is sure to please. If you are otherwise unfamiliar with the work of Brumel, it's a good place to start. And if you simply want to explore a collection of choral polyphony by a less well-known composer whose strengths are conveyed through first class singing, it is also recommended without hesitation.

Copyright © 2014, Mark Sealey