The Hilliard Ensemble

Nicolas Gombert: Missa Media Vita in Morte Sumus

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The music of Flemish composer Nicolas Gombert (accent it like "Dilbert"), active in the first generation after Josquin in the 1530s and 1540s, has remained almost completely untouched by the growth in audience enthusiasm for Renaissance music in recent years. Is this because, according to one of those music-historical sidelights reproduced in the notes here, Gombert was once fired from a job for committing "gross indecency" with a choirboy? More likely it's the relatively unchanging texture of his unaccompanied choral music; although it is far from inexpressive, it is quite dense. His language is derived from that of his mentor Josquin, but there are no high-relief points of imitation to grab onto, no moments of lucidity. It's sort of a Renaissance wall of sound, dark-colored, but with flashes of intense red and blue.

The Hilliard Ensemble may succeed in reversing the deficit of Gombert sales. Gombert wrote for low voices, and the complement of singers used here -- a countertenor, tenors, (three of them for the Josquin tribute piece Musae Iovis, fewer on some other works), a baritone, and a bass -- is perfect for the murky mysticism of Gombert's music. The central expressive device in Gombert's music, as in some of Josquin's darker motets, is the use of passages in which the music wanders into intense dissonance, and the Hilliard Ensemble has a wonderful feel for these.

The sequence of the tracks on the disc is odd. One Mass Ordinary, the Missa Media Vita in Morte Sumus (the "In the Middle of Life We Are Already Dead Mass"), is presented along with six motets, including one that furnished the basic material for the mass. But the mass is broken up, with the motets performed in between its individual sections. It's possible that the Hilliard intended to vary the texture a bit; the mass is written for five voices, while the motets, with one exception, are for either four or six. But the mass does, despite its density, hang together; there is a consistency of mood and of dissonance treatment across its sections that is lost when it is broken up. Nevertheless, this disc is a fine introduction to Gombert's music, and a worthwhile purchase for anyone already enamored of the Hilliard's sound. ECM's marvelous sound makes use of the Propstei St. Gerold, a hall at an Austrian monastery that has become a favorite of European engineers.

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