... is deep, enduring, and splendid. It has been the "starting point" for much of the Early Music movement, as represented by artists like the Hilliard Ensemble, the Orlando Consort, Gothic Voices, the Tallis Scholars, The Clerks' Group, inter alia. The Brabant Ensemble, conducted by Stephen Rice, worthily extends that tradition. Just compare the roster of seventeen singers heard on this CD with the rosters of those aforementioned ensembles; the overlap is significant. It's no dishonor to either group to say that the Brabant Ensemble sounds very much like the Tallis Scholars. The same strengths and the same weaknesses! The chief strengths of both are their brightness, clarity, and discipline. The chief weaknesses result from their strengths; both ensembles are treble-heavy, too dominated by their sopranos (women singers in both groups), with the result that their "polyphony" often sounds a lot like homophony. They sing the chords rather than the lines; they sound vertical rather than linear. The other half of that distinctively English sound results from the generic wimpiness of their male voices, especially the basses. Is 'wimpiness' too offensive a descriptor? If so, I apologize. But since they always double the voices, the timbres are bound to be somewhat generic, and since they use extremely 'muscular' soprano voices, they inevitably overawe the tenors and basses. "Discipline" is both the strength and the weakness of the Tallis Scholars; TS director Peter Phillips often wields too heavy a baton, thus marshaling his singers by the bar-lines that were NOT present in Renaissance polyphony. Brabant conductor Stephen Rice is far more sensitive to the rhetorical independence of voices in polyphony; hence the Brabant Ensemble expresses more of the rhythmic vitality of "Franco-Flemish" composers like Jean Mouton.
This is a fine performance, embodying the best the British choral tradition, but I'm not as thrilled by it as I hoped to be. The eight-part motets, all sung two-on-a-part, are too top-heavy and perhaps a tad too solemn. Of course they were written for performance in churches, chiefly on liturgical occasions, but they needn't sound so "churchy". Jean Mouton (1459-1522) composed a long generation before Jean Calvin (1509-1564) decomposed. Think of the paintings of Mouton's era, of the clothes people were wearing in those paintings! Think of Mouton's most ardent patron, the luxuriously decadent Pope Leo X of the Medicis! These motets need to sound prideful and bold, not sanctimonious.
To my ears, the five-part Missa Tu es Petrus has more of the proper flare. It was an "old-fashioned" composition in its own time, closer in style to the works of Ockeghem (1425-1497) than to Mouton's own norms in his motets and other masses. The impact of the music depends on the rhythmic energy and complexity of the four "contra" lines hopping and scooting around the dependably stately "tenor". [Not the tenor singers! "Tenor" here is a structural concept, a long-note firm chant against which the other voices gyrate.] Stephen Rice and the Brabants handle this sort of free-swinging polyphony far more expressively than Phillips and the Tallis Scholars. Even so, however, I wish this performance had been done one-voice-per-part, with the bass borrowed from a Dutch or German ensemble.
Jean Mouton was and is often compared to Josquin Desprez (1455-1521). Indeed, some modern musicologists have suggested that Mouton should be perceived as Josquin's heir. In fact the two composers were exact contemporaries who died just a year apart. Much of Mouton's music seems quite conservative, if one takes Josquin's as the template for the "future" of polyphony. But Josquin was an internationalist, renowned throughout Europe, who spent much of his career in Italy, while Mouton was a rare "stay-at-home" among the great 'Fiamminghi' composers of his era. His early career was provincial, centered around Amiens. His big break came when he took a post in Grenoble, where he caught the attention of royalty, becoming the principal composer of the French court for the rest of his life. As far as we know, he traveled outside France only once, to Bologna in 1515, where he was honored by Leo X. It's likely that Mouton was commissioned by Leo X to prepare the glorious musical volume known now as the Medici Codex, as a wedding gift for the dissolute Lorenzo de' Medici of Urbino. That manuscript and the Parisian printings of Mouton's music for the French court have insured the survival of an exceptional body of his work, including fifteen complete masses.
If "greatness" is to be measured in terms of influence, oddly enough Mouton's greatest impact on musical history was through his student, Adrian Willaert (1490-1562), who became maestro di capella at St. Mark's in Venice. Willaert certainly built upon Mouton's eight-part motets in the evolution of the monumental double and triple choir works for which he became famous. Willaert, in turn, could arguably be ranked as one of the most influential composers of all time.