The Huelgas-Ensemble presents another superbly sung, thoughtfully programmed recording that offers for our consideration what conductor Paul Van Nevel describes as “the three major styles of the Renaissance”, represented by Roman, Franco-Flemish, and English Late Gothic masses. It’s easy to understand the choice of Palestrina (Roman) and Lassus (Franco-Flemish)–but with Thomas Ashewell we truly have a horse of a different color, stylistically for sure, but also one with the most meager catalog (only two extant complete works, according to Van Nevel). The term “late Gothic” as applied to musical style also is not a common one, but Van Nevel obviously has carefully–and probably cleverly–chosen to demonstrate its aspects with Ashewell rather than with a more familiar yet more commonly heard contemporary composer such as Cornysh, Fayrfax, or Carver.
All of this aside, what we have here is a very engrossing concert during which you really can hear the distinct differences Van Nevel talks about in his informative notes, and where you can thoroughly revel in sonorities (especially in the Lassus) that resonate so fully and deeply that you suspect some electronic trickery must be involved. But no, we learn that the “trick” is in having found an ideal performing space–the Museum of Water in the Convento dos Barbadinhos in Lisbon (there are several color pictures of this), a high-ceilinged, open-storied architectural marvel whose primary materials seem to be wood and glass and stone. Combine this setting with Huelgas-Ensemble’s absolutely dead-on intonation and focused, dynamic collective sound (not to mention some fine musical material) and you have one incredible vocal-performance event.
You know you’re in for something special right from that first soul-satisfying cadence in the Lassus Kyrie. I was further intrigued at how Lassus preserved elements of his original model (Gombert’s “Tous les regretz” chanson)–for example, Gombert’s typical close-layered imitation technique using very short melodic bits (apparent in the Sanctus)–while still reconstituting the work as his own, and as a functional, formidable, affecting liturgical entity. Although Palestrina’s “Ut re mi fa sol la” Mass is not among his most illustrious in the genre, listeners can easily appreciate its distinctive cantus firmus and the composer’s facility and varied treatment of it throughout. Again, Van Nevel has chosen a worthy yet rarely recorded work–another of this program’s benefits.
As mentioned, Ashewell’s Ave Maria Mass is an adventure unto itself, characterized by long melismas, high treble parts, liberal use of cross relations, and above all, very complex rhythms within and between parts, reminiscent of 15th-century Northern European music from an era even before Ashewell (who was born around 1480, a generation before Lassus and Palestrina). There’s nothing left to say, except if you’re a fan of Renaissance choral music, don’t hesitate. [1/15/2008]