Gombert: Magnificats 1-4
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Magnificats 1 à 4 tons avec plainchant (Antiennes pour les premières vêpres de la Toussaint, pour les 18 & 25 décembre, pour les vêpres du samedi précédant le dimanche des Rameaux) / The Tallis Scholars, dir. Peter Phillips
Nicolas Gombert (c. 1495-1560) composed texturally complicated music. If at first it seems murky, its captivating counterpoint--which is almost always polyphonic, without a break for a straight, homophonic line--eventually delights just because of this complexity. These four settings of the Magnificat depend heavily on lower men's voices, making the texture even darker, and the result is rich and velvety. Sometimes Gombert writes for two voices twirling around each other, sometimes for as many as eight. The result is always fascinating, and Tallis Scholars, finely tuned and loving every troublesome dissonance, perform this music as well as we might want. If these pieces, probably composed for the down-in-the-dumps Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, don't exactly make one want to dance, they will certainly interest fans of rich tapestries in music. --Robert Levine
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Prominent among these many fine works is Gombert's magnificent series of eight settings - composed, according to one very plausible historical source, as an act of penance and a plea for forgiveness after the composer had been convicted and punished for a serious transgression in the course of his duties as chapelmaster to Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Be that as it may, the result is one of the truly great masterpieces of renaissance music - a coherent and unified set of eight Magnificats, each one basing its principal motif on one of the eight traditional chants or modes. Thus each of these settings is quite distinct, as Gombert uses the simple melodic line of each chant to create a powerful, rhythmical motif which is then developed in the form of intensive, muscular and infinitely varying polyphony through the subsequent verses. Each of the eight works is written in the alternatim format, the verses being alternately polyphonic and chanted; but, far from the listener having any sense of the work being interrupted or fragmented, the impetus created by the distinctive initial motif and its progressive development, with each polyphonic verse seeming to resume where the last one left off, is so powerful that the cumulative effect is enhanced all the more as a result.
This is, therefore, intensely involving, charismatic music that packs a real punch. And, what is more, the performance by the Tallis Scholars under Peter Phillips is quite magnificent. My personal favourites on this disc (containing nos. 1-4) are the Magnificats in the Second and Third tones - and, on the other disc covering nos. 5-8 Magnificats 5-8, those in the Fifth and Eighth tones. That might seem like an awful lot of favourite Magnificats, but I believe many listeners will have a similar problem once you get to know these works. On the present disc, for example, there's an especially stunning passage in no. 2 at "Fecit potentiam", with the lower voices expressing the unforgettable meaning of the words (He hath shown strength with his arm: he hath scattered the proud in their conceit) in music of extraordinary muscularity and vigour. But there are equally fine examples all over the place; you only have to listen to the opening notes of the very first setting to feel the great strength of the initial motif, which immediately demands attention even before it begins its irresistible development.
Reviewer Kurt Messick has already written an excellent piece describing the many wonderful qualities of the music and its performance here, so I won't go on about these much more except to add a few comments in a separate review of the disc containing Magnificats 5-8. But I completely disagree with the comments from reviewer S. Hecht about an alleged lack of depth, warmth or beauty on the part of the Tallis Scholars. To my ears, the very opposite is the case - their performances are both beautiful and intense, deeply committed and more than worthy of the vigour and passion of Gombert's extraordinary music.
All this is as far away as can be from the traditional English cathedral gentility with which renaissance music has sometimes been treated in the past, and of which reviewers have often complained. In short, renaissance fans, please don't miss out on these works; Gombert's music, and its performance by the Tallis Scholars, are overwhelming.