Nicolas Gombert (c1495-1560) was a significant composer of the post-Josquin generation and a singer disgraced from the Emperor Charles V’s court chapel when accused of molesting a choirboy. Sentenced to the galleys, he composed ‘swansongs’ which won him the emperor’s pardon. He is chiefly remembered for his 160-plus motets, 19 of which are handsomely represented on this double-album debut from the aptly named Beauty Farm, a new vocal ensemble specialising in Franco-Flemish Renaissance polyphony.
The group comprises one countertenor, three tenors and two basses, each hailing from one or more established European vocal ensembles. In these motets they tend towards a rich, low-pitched blended sound reminiscent of the Huelgas Ensemble’s 1992 Gombert release (Sony, 4/93). Vocal lines are clearly delineated but the overall texture remains smooth and calm. The combination of a rich, sonorous acoustic and a warm countertenor on the top line creates an immediately recognisable Low Countries blend.
As a composer, Gombert is a figure notable for pushing at the boundaries of the modal music system. His polyphony is suave yet harmonically challenging. The editions by Jorge Martín recorded here take a conservative approach to musica ficta, which allows Beauty Farm to avoid short-range gestures in preference for a rolling long-range polyphonic trajectory characteristic of the ars perfecta. In this respect Beauty Farm’s interpretations evoke the spirit of the Hilliard Ensemble, offering a nod to their classic polyphonic style: never hurrying, never obviously cadencing. The results are indeed beautiful, if not slightly too-cool-for-school for my taste. Compare the opening of O beata Maria with Henry’s Eight (1996), who worked with Australian musicologist John O’Donnell. Henry’s Eight created a slow, sensual texture pierced by a throbbing false relation on ‘Maria’. Beauty Farm, on the other hand, are notably quicker with a less stringent vocal tone, the Marian purple-patch subsumed into the larger phrase.
Despite lacking that frisson of mischief we have come to expect from Gombert, this is one of the most unrelentingly beautiful discs of his music to date. I welcome the focus on long-range polyphonic phrases allowing Gombert’s smooth polyphonic lines to take centre stage. Beauty Farm have made a debut of note.