This is a remarkable disc, firstly because of the rarity of the repertoire it contains, and secondly because of the extraordinary vigour of much of the singing. When I first listened to Nato canunt omnia, I was quite taken aback both by the speed and by the brashness of the sound—the ‘milked’ false relation at the final cadence is to die for—but further acquaintance not only makes the vigour seem normal but essential. Stephen Rice gives quite brilliant analyses of the pieces recorded in his very substantial booklet notes; of Nato canunt omnia he says, ‘The piece as a whole stands as a virtuosic demonstration of Brumel’s compositional technique, which juxtaposes radically different styles and textures to create a glittering musical collage.’ This goes to the heart of the matter: Brumel is a difficult composer of whom to get the measure, both because he has been very little performed and recorded with the exception of the 12-voice Missa ‘Et ecce terrae motus’, and, importantly, he himself is something of a chameleon.
The lovely Beata es, Maria, a recasting of a spiritual lauda, provides another facet of the composer, and both this and the sequence Lauda Sion salvatorem elicit a much more restrained style of vocal production than Nato canunt omnia. I believe that Rice has cracked the ‘problem’ of Brumel’s alternatim setting of Lauda Sion, which, as so often, was not a problem at all, but merely required a careful examination of what was actually on the paper; it is certainly a convincing solution, both liturgically and musically.
The Missa de beata virgine offers, on account of its length, many sonic possibilities, and the Brabants are able to use both their sharp-edged upper voices and their sense of line to tremendous effect. Rice points out the work’s emphasis on rhythm—‘percussive’ is the word he uses—in his notes, and that is certainly true, but I have always also considered Brumel an innate melodist, always within, it is true, the context of the contrapuntal scaffolding. The way he generates the climax of the second ‘Kyrie’ is characteristic, for example. But when the music is more text-driven, as in the ‘Gloria’, Brumel is certainly the master of rhythm, and Rice’s direction is clearly attuned to this aspect of the music; the changes of pace at cadences are not only rigorously thought through but utterly convincing.