Thomas Morley wrote in 1597 that only Brumel and Josquin held the secrets to the older canonic techniques of the composers of the Prima Prattica. In an obviously sign of great admiration Orlando Lassus performed the Missa 'Et ecce terrae motus' over fifty years after Brumel's death. This is a monumental work written in no less than 12 parts yet has a tremendous immediacy that gives it wide appeal. During Brumel's lifetime even Ottaviano Petrucci published a book of his masses, and a number of composers wrote pieces honoring him on his death.
This is the World Premier Recording that produced such a stir when it appeared that it generated other 'me too' recordings by the likes of the Tallis Scholars and Ensemble Clément Janequin.
Mary Berry writes a rather candid review in Gramophone magazine that is well worth quoting:
"The Tallis Scholars sing a semitone higher than the written pitch, which is that chosen by the Huelgas Ensemble. Van Nevel cultivates a rich reedy vocal quality and the lower pitch has the advantage of encouraging deeper and darker sonorities; though the sound is more opaque, lacking the clarity of The Tallis Scholars."
Due to subtle coloring of the vocal tone with a sound more from the throat and chest, Nevel's approach to this music is richer hued and differentiated than that of the bright, and homogeneous sounding English choral groups who insist on always only ever using a head voice. The resultant warmth is for me a great relief from the more puritanical English sound. Nevel's general approach is as always deeply poetic and meditative with richly memorable phrasing of lines taken at more expansive tempi in a way that is always much more immediately communicative than icy gloss.
It should be mentioned that the practice of transposing up or down for the comfort of the singers is perfectly in keeping with standard period practice and that singing the work untransposed is no more 'historically accurate' . However, I always feel that the darker, more chiaroscuro feel of the Huelgas sonority reminds me of the feel of a lot of contemporary painters who prefer a far more somber coloring, whereas the Tallis Scholars seem to have a bright clean texture more like a Picasso or Kandinsky. Then again Peter Phillips has even gone so far as to deny that the Tallis Scholars are even an early music choir - he just wants the music to sound like he thinks it should, which is based on an ideal he learnt while at Cambridge.
Mary Berry goes on:
"Where the two choirs differ most, however, is in the last movement, the Agnus Dei. The Munich source, used by both choirs, is deficient at this point and some reconstruction is needed. Van Nevel has supplied an ingenious canonic solution to the first (and third) Agnus Dei, with its ''virtuosic and turbulent'' progression of mensural changes. He has, moreover, replaced the missing Agnus Dei II by a section from an independent Danish source, a section rejected by Peter Phillips and Francis Knights on the grounds that it was scored for six voices only and voices using different ranges from those in the rest of the Mass. The net result is that the two choirs present what amounts to two completely different final movements."
Quite correctly, Van Nevel - whose version might be preferred on this ground alone - has carried out the more ingenious and thoroughly researched reconstruction of the missing parts.
However, perhaps the most telling comment of all by Mary Berry in her comparison of the Huelgas and Tallis Scholar Brumel recordings is that "there is an infectious warmth and sense of involvement in the singing of the Belgian group". While French critics tend to go on a bit in criticizing the Tallis Scholars for their 'perfection glacée' (icy perfection), this is about as close to an admission as you could ever expect from an English critic that the Huelgas Ensemble have a warmer and more expressive sound. Interestingly, all of these comments come from her review of the Tallis Scholar's recording - where she still ends up writing more about the Huelgas Ensemble than the Tallis Scholars.
The recording by Dominique Visse with the Ensemble Clément Janequin provides a more stimulating alternative to Paul van Nevel. Visse uses 12 instruments and 12 voices with counter-tenors singing the top line whereas the Huelgas Ensemble include only 4 instruments and sopranos take the top lines. The result is a more colorful and vibrant performance of the sort you would expect from an excellent French early music group such as this. The results are fascinating - lower pitched and darker in timbre though just as brilliant in the final effect.
The accompanying Sequentia 'Dies irae' on the version by the Huelgas Ensemble is also a fascinating work although much darker and medieval in feel and makes a worthy filler for this superb and now remastered CD - doubtless a recognition of its classical status. For despite some serious competition from rivals who all have their merits the Huelgas Ensemble's recording is the place you should start if you are coming to this work for the first time.