A rightful successor to Josquin Desprez, with whom he studied, Nicolas Gombert had been long neglected at the time of this recording. The mass represented here, split as it is among a choice selection of motets, is exemplary of his gift for rewriting. His vocal lines are characterized by their restlessness, both in terms of composition (the virtual lack of rests in the score) and mood (in its constant search for resolution).
How do Hilliards bring their own sensibility to music already so fine? By doing what they always do so well: allowing their entire beings to resonate with every note they sing. Augmenting their usual quartet, the Hilliards welcome bass Robert Macdonald and tenor Andreas Hirtreiter (making a trio of tenors for three of the motets herein) for this long-overdue recording. Macdonald’s presence is especially felt in the six-part motet, Media vita in morte sumus, that opens the program. Like much of what follows on this disc, the music is dark and bottom-heavy. This doesn’t mean, however, that moments of light are nowhere to be found, for in the escalations of tense polyphony that abound there is the illumination of obscurity. Like a stained glass window, one comes to know it through its variations in opacity and translucence, and then only through a glow whose source remains as intangible as the reverence that gave it life.
Gombert takes the Media vita in morte sumus as source for his five-part Missa Media Vita. Scattered among a selection of motets, the voices of the Missa tumble into one another in a music resigned to its own finitude. Harmonies tend toward the dissonant and tight, so that moments of consonance shine with an airy quality that seems to bypass the mind completely and head straight to the prayerful heart. There is gravity in this music, both in its sense of seriousness and in terms of force. One need listen no further than the Kyrie, which through its introductory tenor line shifts the angle of light to a gallery of rolling landscapes. Between the subtler interactions of the Sanctus and the continued magic of the tenor lines in the Agnus Dei, one cannot help but hear in their amen(d)s a visceral resolution.
Throughout the remaining motets, the brilliance of David James steals the heart, especially in O crux, splenidor cunctis. His duetted lines with tenors in the Salve Regina seem also to fly, scanning pasture for supplication. Unexpected changes await in Anima Mea, which moves with the timidity of a newly baptized child, while the closing Musae lovis, a tribute to Josquin, surrounds us in folds of ever-changing breath.
Gombert’s is music one can easily get lost in. In doing so, the listener learns to shut out the individual voice in favor of the grander tabernacle it embodies. His motives work in ropes more than threads. Like members of a shepherd’s flock, herded by divine command, they may not understand the constitution of the voice that guides them, but through the sound alone they know to press on with their brothers and sisters into the setting sun. (ECM Reviews)