Huelgas Ensemble / Paul van Nevel

40 Voices

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This CD, a recording of a live performance by Paul van Nevel's choir of mixed voices, Huelgas Ensemble, features a program that is fraught with peril -- large-scale a cappella Renaissance music with 12 to 40 individual parts. To make it through such a treacherous program without a tonal train wreck would be an achievement, but the ensemble performs not only with precision and beauty of tone, remarkable accomplishments in themselves in music of this density, but with an expressiveness that makes the esoteric repertoire genuinely moving and pulse quickening. Van Nevel brings the pieces a fluidity and energy that keep them from being the monolithic walls of sound they could easily become. The music brings oceanic images to mind -- teeming, swirling, surging, majestic waves of sound slowly turning over and over on themselves. Tallis wrote his 40-voice Spem in alium, the most famous piece in this collection, in response to Alessandro Striggio's 40-voice Ecce beatam lucem, which had made a huge sensation when it was performed in London in 1657, and besides the forces required, the pieces share a towering monumentality. The album includes one contemporary piece, the 35-voice Nomen mortis infame, by Willem Ceuleers, which was written in honor of the Huelgas Ensemble's 35th anniversary. The composer thoroughly understands Renaissance polyphony, and the piece is very much at home among the other works; Ceuleers only occasionally slyly tips his hand to reveal that it is a product of the twenty first century. The sound is spectacularly clear and vivid, with none of the murkiness that would seem inevitable in music of this textural complexity.

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