TOP 500 REVIEWERon 2 June 2012
First of all, this is fabulous music. Jean Mouton, one of a number of outstanding Franco-Flemish contemporaries of the incomparable Josquin, has been poorly served on disc until now - apart from the justifiably much-loved motet "Nesciens mater". That piece makes a fine start to the present disc - with one small reservation which I'll come back to at the end - and it's then followed by a programme of equally fine works which, as far as I know, have never previously been recorded.
The most impressive of these is undoubtedly the Missa Tu es Petrus. This 5-voice cantus firmus mass is an extremely beautiful work in both melody and texture. The clarity of its counterpoint and the radiant, soaring lines remind me a little of Clemens non Papa, one of my own favourites; and yet somehow the result is quite different, for Mouton has a very distinctive manner of his own. Here the voices weave graceful garlands around the chant theme as the composer, far from being in any way restricted by the cantus firmus format, allows himself remarkable freedom to develop his inspired melodic ideas. Moreover this adventurous music, with its starkly prominent lines, is most beautifully delivered by the Brabant Ensemble, singing two voices to a part. This mass is altogether a splendid and inspired work, and truly there is not a single dull moment as it receives a vigorous, committed and profoundly musical interpretation from Stephen Rice and his excellent singers.
There are plenty more treasures in this fascinating and well-organised programme. In addition to "Nesciens mater" there are three other fine 8-voice motets. These include the majestic state motet "Exsultet coniubilando" - a good example of the tendency among many composers, both in renaissance times and after, to produce some of their noblest-sounding pieces when in grovel mode, that is to say when composing music in praise of some earthly potentate - in this case presumed to be Pope Leo X. Whatever the motivation, the result is lovely, as is the following sacred piece "Verbum bonum et suave".
After Mouton's beautiful Mass, the disc ends with two fascinating and characterful motets - both in four voices, but here with the usual 2VPP arrangement understandably supplemented by an extra voice to each part. I say 'understandably' in view of their subject matter; the first, "Bona vita, bona refectio" encourages listeners to eat, drink and have a jolly good time, with the help of a text conveniently providing the clerical audience with a righteous excuse for doing so. It's a joyful, enthusiastic piece, sung here with all the panache you could wish for. Finally, "Factum est silentium", despite this innocuous first line of text, is about the battle between St Michael and the dragon and the heavenly onlookers' reactions to it. It's a vivid and exciting piece, with splendid homophonic passages accentuating the drama; and once again it's superbly sung here.
This programme, then, is another brilliant contribution to the renaissance discography from the Brabant Ensemble. As for questions of sound and clarity, I take fellow reviewer E. L. Wisty's point about a certain thickness of texture at times, which I noticed especially in the opening item but which didn't really bother me after that, and least of all in the Mass. Perhaps this is because there are other fine recordings of the beautiful "Nesciens" motet for comparison, which of course is not the case with any of the other works; or maybe I just got used to it. In any case I'm not sure that I would want to blame it on the singers or on their 2VPP format, which I find works pretty well for them as it does for several other eminent early-music ensembles; I think the acoustic and/or recording arrangements are just as likely to be responsible. But, for me at least, this characteristic - which you may or may not consider a flaw depending on your taste - is far outweighed by the fact that Stephen Rice and his ensemble have brought us a programme of rare and wonderful music and, what's more, in superbly crafted and committed performances. I really must stress again the extraordinary quality of the Tu es Petrus mass. In his excellent booklet notes Dr. Rice tells us that it's just one of Mouton's fifteen surviving mass settings. As far as I know only two of these, including the present one, have ever been available on disc; so, if the others are anywhere near as fine as this, will somebody please bring us some more?