MUSICA SECRETA, a stylish consort of female singers, specialises in authentic performance of Renaissance music. Its members have travelled widely, from the Brighton Early Music Festival to Manchester and Edinburgh, and thence to north and central Italy.
I first heard them at Warwick Early Music, easily the most richly imaginative series to be heard in the Midlands, and run by Richard Phillips, together with his desirably wide-ranging Leamington Music events.
The group’s latest foray to the north brought them to St Paul’s, Huddersfield, now a spacious musical venue for the adjacent Huddersfield University. The music came over with a clarity to match the choir’s very distinctive sound.
Their programme “From Darkness to Light” focused to advantage on the music of Antoine Brumel (c.1460-c.1513), one of the most influential composers of the Franco-Flemish school to emerge in the late 15th century. In particular, it revealed his setting of the Lamentations of Jeremiah for Good Friday (Tenebrae), introduced by the choir’s co-founder Laurie Stras, who did the detective and transcription work to bring the piece together.
The stunning quality of Brumel’s output has already been evidenced: his Mass Et ecce terrae motus (“Earthquake Mass”) reveals the brilliance of his part-writing (not least for internal lines) and his often staggering decorative boldness. It has been recorded by The Tallis Scholars (Gimell CDGIM026), the Leipzig ensemble Calmus (Carus 83497), the Belgian Huelgas Ensemble, and the French Ensemble Clément Janequin. Any of these recordings can be recommended.
Even just two movements on The Sixteen’s label (Coro 16097) prove the point; as, too, does a recording by The Clerks under Edward Wickham (Gaudeamus 168). The late David Munrow was abreast of Brumel: witness a 2010 reissue by Erato Veritas (6284972).
One might wonder whether the restriction of music from this period to upper voices would limit its impact. But this was in no way indicated either at Warwick or at Huddersfield. The bottom line or lines — the altos Robin Bier, Kim Porter, and Stras herself, one of several eminent academics in the ensemble — provided such a secure sustaining undercurrent that it had the reinforcing effect of low basses. This, as well as the exquisite proximity and interplay of the voices, enhanced the appeal of the music as a whole. There was no lack of rich colours here.
Indeed, the music of this setting of Lamentations, known only from one or two sources, was written for a convent in Florence. Thus it exemplifies the notion of employing richly alluring “equal voices”.
The most famous setting of the Lamentations is Tallis’s, from the 1560s, when he was at the height of his influence. In his work, the power of affect — the linear and vertical devising of the music such as deeply to stir the emotions — is palpable.
This Brumel setting is in a manuscript of the same period (known as P.M., Florence, 1559), copied by Antonio Moro, a composer featured in the largely anonymous — and thus all the more intriguing — second half of this concert. Being essentially in the same key throughout and performed with little variation in pacing, however, Brumel’s is not as powerful as Tallis’s work, or indeed Brumel’s own Masses. The musical temperature is lower: this is about humility and austerity.
Brumel’s setting of Jeremiah’s lament for the fall of Jerusalem is unusual in setting 19 verses — two more than became standard for Good Friday in the Roman breviary — and with a different division, including five refrains rather than three. Its words, of course, are to be understood in this context as prefiguring the Passion of Christ. It would have been, therefore, more helpful had the full text been supplied to the audience rather than an astute summary.
A series of superb paintings — the scarcely known ones (Crivelli, Bergognone, Bernardo Luini) eclipsing the obvious (Titian, Botticelli) — were projected on a screen: above: contrasting Pietà, Golgotha, and Deposition depictions. This held my attention, I confess, rather more than the music.
If Moro’s own Marian invocation Sancta Maria succurre miseris” was enlivening, I was captivated by the bass viol (Alison Kinder) in a Salve Regina; by some immaculately gelling plainsong in Ave maris stella; by the touching veneration, with activet organ (Claire Williams), of Adoramus te Christe; and the striking penitential feel of the brief antiphon Jesus autem cum jejunasset quadraginta diebus. But it was Ecce nunc tempus acceptabile that, by lively internal movement, emitted a feel akin to Brumel’s great Mass.
All these works were anonymous — some conceivably by female composers, as underlined by the last work, Vespere autem sabbati (On the eve of the sabbath, attributed to the (possibly prolific) Leonora (Eleonora) d’Este (1515-75), daughter of the Duke of Ferrara and Lucrezia Borgia. This seems a perfect piece for Musica Secreta to tour, and they do it exceptionally well.
Music Secreta had intended to repeat “From Darkness to Light” as part of the Holy Week Festival at St John’s, Smith Square, in London on 11 April. This has now been cancelled, but the group has events scheduled from September, and a CD of the programme is available to buy from musicasecreta.com