Having sometimes found Pierre de la Rue a tough nut to crack on the basis of the current discography, I am grateful to Henry’s Eight for showing me up as a Doubting Thomas. The Missa cum iucunditate is one of de la Rue’s most widely circulated settings, and hearing it sung as zestfully as it is here, one understands why. It is indeed pervaded by the ‘jollity’ of the title, and belies de la Rue’s rather dour reputation. A previous recording by The Hilliard Ensemble did little to bring across its exuberance or its infectious enthusiasm of invention. The Hilliard sang it one-to-a-part and sounded as though they were nearing the end of a long recording session; Henry’s Eight involves all its members, so that the addition of a second countertenor in the Credo is neither contrived nor artificial, but an extension of what precedes it. The ensemble seems also to have allowed itself time to locate the music’s rhetorical peaks: each movement has something new and fresh to offer, but the ‘Osanna’ stands out especially. It illustrates the point I made some years ago when this ensemble made their recording debut (with Robert Whyte on Meridian, 5/96) about their ability to ‘sing out’ in an unrestrained manner, while still sounding unmistakably English. To my mind, this recording fulfils that promise.
The selection of motets complements the Mass handsomely, and shows off some of the Eight’s other emotional registers. The gems here are the performances of Ockeghem’s Ave Maria (perhaps the finest available, contemplative and tensile: witness the final descent of the top line) and of Josquin’s funeral motet,