Brumel is one of the great Flemish composers of the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. Working mainly in France, including at Paris and Chartres, he was a contemporary of Josquin and Loyset Compère and almost certainly a pupil of Ockeghem. He music adopts a style which is in many ways very French.
There are several secular works like the famous ‘Fortuna desperata’, almost thirty motets and sixteen surviving masses often published by Petrucci. However, its Brumel’s extraordinary Mass in twelve parts ‘Et Ecce terrae motus”—otherwise known as the ‘Earthquake’ Mass—that is best known and has had several recordings. What is striking about it and about these works generally is their originality and vitality. In his wonderfully detailed if somewhat technical notes Stephen Rice, the conductor of the Brabant Ensemble, looks into the many facets of the technical and musicological background to these little known works.
I’ve written about previous recordings made by this superb choir before: Jean Mouton (Hyperion CDA67933), Jacobus Clemens (Hyperion CDA67848) and even more moving, Morales’ Lamentations also on Hyperion (CDA67694). The sound is iridescent and fresh but ripe, clear but resonant, young but mature. They are a top choir and this is the earliest repertoire they have so far tackled. In the music of Brumel they have achieved one of their best recording sessions yet; as ever clear and marvellously balanced. The acoustic of the vast Victorian, suburban Oxford church is excellent and some readers will know that it is often used by largish choirs.
The Mass, which consists of the usual five sections, is the longest work. The most fascinating is the motet that constitutes track 1: the five voice Nato canunt Omnia. This is a lengthy Christmas text based on a somewhat complex cantus firmus. Rice, quite rightly, writes about it in absorbing detail. The argument concerns Brumel’s typically free use and choice of plainchants. The motet has been reconstructed effectively but what really matters to the listener is the exciting, emotional power generated. Brumel’s style is busy but always expressive.
The Missa de Beata Virgine was, it seems, written in a spirit of friendly competition with Josquin. The latter’s mass is serene and has been quite often recorded being considered the more mature work. Wisely the Brabant’s tempi are fluent, even swift. I like this approach but some expressive moments have been missed as in the ‘Et incarnatus’ or the ‘Benedictus’ in general. Brumel is mostly able to make the text shine through with well-defined textures which are rarely too impenetrable or clear. There was an earlier recording by the Speculum Ensemble (Naxos 8.570535) which I have not heard but which I gather received mixed reviews. It seems churlish to suggest that this new recording should be overlooked as a consequence.
The Marian motets are tranquil and poised. The Beata es, Maria could also have been a sort of competition piece alongside settings by Compère and Obrecht. Of the two I am most struck by the Ave caelorum domina, a text also set by Josquin. Brumel is a master of textural variety and of changing vocal colourings. He always keeps your attention as is well demonstrated here.
Had this disc come out last year it could have been considered part of a celebration of the five hundredth anniversary of death of Brumel—a very significant figure in renaissance music. Despite its late arrival it’s very welcome as a fine addition to the catalogue.