Gary Higginson
MusicWeb International
February 2020

Two composers with potentially confusing names and when you add to that other renaissance composers such as the Lobo’s and the five members of the Lupus family you might not be surprised to discover that they found it all rather confusing too in the sixteenth century with works being wrongly credited. But scholars such as Bonnie Blackburn are on top of it and this recording, featuring these composers for the first time, is the pinnacle of refined singing and thoughtful scholarship and presentation that is always the case with this fine, clearly focused chamber choir. There are just nine of them for this disc, a slightly smaller group than they have employed on earlier recordings.

Hellinck worked in the beautiful city of Bruges, alongside many of the great visual artists of the period like the Van Eyck’s, and his five-part Mass, performed from a published version of 1547, is based on the motet Surrexit pastor bonus by the little-known Spanish master Andreas de Silva. The mood is very sunny with the mode/key around F being continually worked on; indeed you may tire of its brightness after a while. It’s a pity that de Silva’s motet could not have preceded the mass as there is just enough space left on the disc. But there is much to attract your attention, not least in the Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus dei. The longer movements, the Gloria and the Credo, would surely have benefited from much more dynamic shading and the upper female voices can sometimes be a little strident. And on considering that this is rather unusual for this ensemble I began to wonder if the acoustic of the Victorian church at Loughton in Essex, which I think they have only used once before, might have caused the problem, which I have not previously noticed. Former recording venues have been, for example, at Merton College for a Morales disc (CDA67694), at St Michael’s Summertown for their outstanding disc of Mouton (CDA67933) and All Saints’ East Finchley for the fine recordings of Obrecht (CDA68216) and Antoine de Févin (CDA68265). On these occasions the choir’s tone quality has been even, clear but warm and superbly balanced.

Rice, who also prepares his own editions, at the end of his detailed notes on the Mass describes it as an ‘expertly controlled setting’. That seems fair but does not, quite correctly I feel, indicate that it is especially inspired.

Johannes Lupi, who hailed from Cambria, is a different case. His Salve celeberrima Virgo is said to be his masterpiece and it is certainly highly expressive and full of wondrous melodic lines, which must be a joy to sing. Rice comments that it ‘expresses a fervent and tender adoration for the Blessed Virgin using the characteristics of the origin mode to great effect’. The words are unaccredited but there are two verses, the first mystical the second more open. Quam pulcra es uses those extraordinarily erotic words from ‘The Song of Songs’ as found in the Old Testament. Lupi choses a glowing major mode for both its verses with a feeling of freshness and first flush of youth.

Lupi’s Benedictus Dominus Deus Israel is full of memorably arched lines and close imitation. Its text is unaccredited in the notes but its joyous nature elicits a rhythmic and vigorous performance.

The disc ends with a Te Deum and this is not only rare as a setting for the period but is uniquely set for various reasons which Rice explains in some detail. I will just add that it works out to thirty-one short verses, each set ending in a cadence and a short silence, for contemplation I should imagine. Verse 27 is curious in that it is in the more antiquated fauxbourdon style. One must remember that this music, which might appear a little prosaic, was designed for the liturgy and not for the concert hall.

Finally, to add to this almost entirely glowing evaluation I can say that all texts are given and well translated. Stephen Rice’s booklet essay is very detailed and sometimes quite technical but for such rare repertoire that, I feel, can only be a good thing. I, for one, really appreciate that the CD runs to no less than thirty-nine tracks, with for example seventeen devoted to the mass, allowing each verse or section of each piece to be easily accessed.

If this repertoire enthuses you and if this choir excites you then snap the disc up as you will probably never see its like again.