A massive music

MUSIC OF THE CAPILLA FLAMENCA

Ensemble Gombert

Xavier College Chapel

Saturday April 30

Ensemble Gombert
Ensemble Gombert

Holding back nothing at the start of their annual subscription series, John O’Donnell and the Ensemble Gombert presented an impressive night’s work on Saturday, filled with music from composers for the Flemish Chapel, that central religious music body associated with the Holy Roman Emperors.   Pierre de la Rue, Brumel and the ensemble’s namesake are familiar quantities to most lovers of Renaissance activity; Noel Bauldeweyn and Thomas Crecquillon, not so much; for this program, the latter provided two motets that shamelessly flattered (or did they?) Emperor Charles V, while Bauldeweyn contributed a motet on which Gombert wrote the mass that gave this recital its spine.

It is a mighty work, the Missa Quam Pulchra es; so much so that O’Donnell served it up in discrete sections, with interpolations from those other Franco-Flemish composers mentioned above.   A fine initiative, as far as it went; the trouble here was that some of these interstitial pieces were not small passages of relief but considerable constructs, like the Brumel Laudate Dominum in caelis amalgam of Psalms 148 and 150 that proved just as substantial as parts of the Gombert mass, with the added quality of a text crying out for hyperbole, insofar as that existed among these composers.

De la Rue’s Magnificat octavi toni made an expansive initial gambit, alternating four-part polyphony with plainchant and distinguished by its unexpected musings on certain phrases in the central verses Fecit potentiam in brachio suo, and, further on, the dispersit superbos mente cordis sui observation.  But the impression at the end was of continuous variety, two-part settings with over-lapping entries set against bursts of full choral texture.  This bounding around also gave the venerable text a welcome gaiety, mirroring the Virgin’s delight in her treatment.

Bauldeweyn’s motet, its inspiration taken from the Song of Songs, made the mildest of introductions to the mass, an upward step pattern of a 4th providing a jumping-off stone for nearly all Gombert’s Ordinary settings; nothing particularly striking to be found, either, in later phrases but all clear grist to an inventive mind on the lookout for a cantus firmus or three.  In the Kyrie, apart from the rich complex of six interweaving and contrasting lines, the only oddity came in an unexpected upward inflexion at the end of the Christe eleison.

But the Gloria was a whole new matter.  Gombert massed his forces and kept up the pressure in a welter throughout the first half, up to that traditional hiatus point before the Qui tollis change of purpose from incessant apostrophes of praise to pleading for redemption.   At the start of the extolling sequence – Laudamus te. Benedicimus te. Adoramus te. Glorificamus te. – the strong suggestion was of bell-like vocal cannonades, constant and even in a seamless paean.   This was followed by a full-bodied sequence of apostrophes as the choir asserted the divine attributes, from Domine Deus through to Filius Patris.  The less sympathetic could see this as pounding away at doubt or scepticism through a technique of musical bludgeoning that admits of no argument, a less sympathetic anti-Reformation response than Palestrina’s, for example.  But the effect from these singers was close to overwhelming, splendidly assured and confident.

A similar feat occurred in the Credo which spread its affirmations in one chain from the opening bold declaration to the assertion of God made man.  After the block assault thus far, the Crucifixus and its consequents provided a relief in tension through more obviously varied textural oppositions but the movement reached its uplifting climax in the Confiteor section, a ferment of linear and metrical action.  Still, it seemed to me that the finest singing came in the Sanctus/Benedictus, particularly in a mellifluous delineation of the Pleni sunt caeli segment where the Gomberts’ balance and clarity of output impressed most fully.

Both Crecquillon motets praising his emperor were given a steady, martial interpretation, Carole magnus erat enjoying a striking soprano kick-off, its directness of speech a contrast to the preceding formidable Gloria, as was its sober ending where the poet and composer collaborate to celebrate the good intentions of the emperor, truly pious rather than obsessed by his own glory.   A theme that returned in Quis te victoriam dicat? where the march-like metre celebrates the royal figure’s victory over his enemies but, more to the point, over himself – a message that was reinforced two-and-a-half times with determined grace by this hard-worked but rarely faltering body of singers.

For this occasion, the Gombert personnel numbers were slightly greater than usual with an extra alto and another tenor while regular Peter Campbell paid a peripatetic visit to the altos every once in a  while.   Still, for those of us who were there, the Ensemble demonstrated yet again why its reputation as the city’s indubitable experts in Renaissance choral music is unchallenged.