Tony Way
Limelight, Australia
March 2015

Antoine Brumel (c. 1460-1512/13) has long been considered Josquin’s greatest contemporary, but was little appreciated until the Tallis Scholars’ groundbreaking recording of his 12-voice ‘earthquake’ Mass (Missa Et ecce terrae motus) in the early 1990s. This work, famous not only for its scale, but also because it was apparently performed by Lassus sixty years after Brumel’s death, has tended to eclipse all his other writing.

All the more reason, then, to welcome this new disc which features the Missa de Beata Virgine, considered by Heinrich Glarean, the esteemed Swiss music theorist of the day, as “worthy of a great man”. Glarean also suggested that Brumel wrote this Mass in competition with Josquin, noting stylistic similarities with Josquin’s setting of the same name.

Thrill-seekers expecting more of Brumel’s dramatic style may be disappointed by this Marian Mass. Presumed a late work, the setting is learned and retrospective, but it is still spiced with a great deal of the composer’s characteristic rhythmic variety. The Brabant Ensemble tackles it in lively fashion, the singers not afraid to employ an edgy tone that sets them apart from the sometimes overly refined British choral establishment. (The use of upper voices, however, for the intonations of Gloria and Credo, is unusual.)

Complementing the Mass are four motets of varying styles. Nato canunt omnia is a joyous Christmas piece of substantial length in which Brumel showcases a dizzying array of styles and metrical tricks. The final ‘Noël’ refrain concludes with an audaciously long, grinding ‘false relation’, which eventually resolves. (Brumel clearly had quite a sense of humour, despite having a reputation for being a rather tetchy church musician who never lasted all that long in one place.) Lauda Sion is an ‘alternatim’ setting (ie. it alternates between plainsong and polyphonic verses) of the sequence for the feast of Corpus Christi and shows masterly variety between its short polyphonic verses. The remaining two motets set Marian texts but are different in nature. Beata es, Maria is based on the melody of a lauda spirituale (spiritual song) and has an attractive simplicity. Ave caelorum domina is more developed and alternates homophonic and polyphonic sections to good effect.

This skilfully executed and well-produced disc will give listeners a greater appreciation of the breadth and skill of Brumel’s music.