There’s an alchemical reaction that takes place when Renaissance polyphony is sung well: the layers of voices (Thomas Tallis made it up to 40 in 1570) set up rhythmic vibrations — some sympathetic, some not — that open up trap doors to mystical depths.
16th century polyphony sounds different from modern music because composers were interested in the forward flow of each line of music. Harmonic relationships are there, too, but they’re not the focus. In so much of modern music, the emphasis is the other way around.
The result is, in some ways, like Gregorian chant multiplied and enriched with all sorts of shifting sonic textures that are the aural equivalent of seeing sunbeams filtered through richly coloured stained-glass windows.
But this new album from England’s Stephen Rice and his 12-voice Brabant Ensemble, specialists in the music of the Renaissance, brings more than impeccable balance and pacing to our ears.
This 10th album for Hyperion from the 14-year-old choir collects five motets and the five-voice Mass setting Missa Tu es Petrus by French priest and composer Jean Mouton, who died in 1522 (his birth year is unknown, but was likely 1457 or 1458).
The special magic that Rice and his singers bring to their intepretation is having found the natural rhythm inside the music. Listened to in peaceful contemplation, one does not hear but feel something akin to a human heartbeat inside the music.
It makes for a deeply moving experience.
Mouton’s best-known motet Nesciens mater, a Christmas piece written for eight voices, opens the disc, offering immediate justification of why he was King Louis XII’s favourite court composer. Here are the foundations for the polyphonic writing for which Palestrina — born three years after Mouton died — gets credit.
Mouton also has a connection to the glorious sounds that would eventually come from Venice, through his student Adrian Willaert, who went on to be the director of music at St Mark’s.
Mouton relies on creating a chant, then having each voice repeat it, in canon form, at specific intervals, both harmonic and metrical, above and below the original. It’s simple and brilliant (and it continues to surprise me how few modern composers of art music have tried to use this technique).
Rice, who does all of his own original research and prepares his own performance scores, has written comprehensive liner notes that fully explain Mouton’s ways and means. Unfortunately, these are probably nearly unintelligible to anyone not familiar with Early Music theory.
The secret to enjoying this wonderful album is not in the words, but in finding space for a nice, long, refreshing soak in the beautiful sounds.
For details and audio samples, click here.
In case you’d like to hear a full motet by Mouton, here is a decent performance from earlier this year of Nesciens mater by the Basque Coro de leon and their conductor Marco Antonio García de Paz: