The Hilliard Ensemble

Antoine Brumel

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The Hilliard Ensemble's Hilliard Live series, now three discs strong with a fourth on the way, has offered superior live performances of Renaissance and Medieval sacred pieces. These male singers mix clarity and a kind of gutsy lyricism that are rare in performances of this music but in their hands seems totally appropriate. The programs are based on a good deal of scholarly investigation and aim to communicate something of the contexts in which it would originally have been used -- the Antoine Brumel Missa Victimae paschali laudes heard here is interspersed with motets and Italian-language laude -- monophonic devotional pieces. (It may seem odd to hear Italian [actually Old Tuscan] in the middle of a mass, but these pieces apparently took on liturgical use.) There is nothing "scholarly" about the performances, however. The polyphonic pieces are sung with one voice per part, and the structure, aptly described in the booklet as involving "cascades of melody materializing around the scaffolding of the long notes of the cantus firmus," is crystal clear. (It might have been helpful, however, to open the program with the Victimae paschali laudes chant itself.) Beyond the singers' grasp of the stylistic isses involved in the music, there is an element of sheer beauty in their performances that cannot help but draw in the listener new to Renaissance masses and their complexities, and the live element undoubtedly lends the singing an audible edge. This, as well as other discs in the series, are strongly recommneded to any listener wanting to get beyond a basic acquaintance with early sacred music.

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