THE late Middle Ages had its day with two concerts of unaccompanied choral music at the Wigmore Hall, in London, last month. The Gesualdo Six, directed by Owain Park, presented “Josquin’s Legacy”, a programme examining the network of composers around the towering figure of Josquin des Prez, who died in 1521; and the Brabant Ensemble looked at the works and legacy of his contemporary, Jean Mouton, dead 500 years ago this year.
From the sensual, close-clustering lines of the first piece, Mouton’s “Tota pulchra es”, the Gesualdo Six’s half-dozen male voices wove an intimate aural tapestry, in which individual lines blended to form a rich, velvety whole, sometimes sacrificing clarity of diction for beauty of tone. The first half dealt with birth, and the joy of the annunciation, with Josquin’s “Praeter rerum seriem”, its rhythmic complexities skilfully negotiated, Brumel’s “Sicut lilium”, and De Févin’s “Nesciens mater”.
The second part brooded on death and loss, with plangent accounts of Josquin’s “Nymphes des bois”, and a caressing tenderness for the anonymous “Mille regretz”. Compère’s sprightlier “Venez regretz” and La Rue’s “Secretz regretz” were sung with just a touch of bounce, as if to suggest a courtlier grief with one eye on the audience. The trickier moments of Brumel’s “Tous les regretz” were beautifully handled, though the countertenor Guy James needs to watch an occasional tendency to hoot, and to dominate, especially during duet passages. They closed with Josquin’s “O virgo prudentissima”, a piece in which the chant spills from the tenor line into all parts to make a joyous declaration of simple faith.
The Brabant Ensemble was founded in 1998 by the conductor Stephen Rice to explore the neglected music of this Duchy between Belgium and the Netherlands. The 12 singers have a sharper, clearer sound than that of the Gesualdo Six, the soprano and alto lines sung by women with a pure, boylike tone, to produce a sound very much like that of a chapel choir.
In their evening concert, Mouton was represented by his Confitemini Domino, “O salutaris hostia”, and “Nesciens mater virgo virum”, and the Kyrie from Missa Faulte d’argent, a mass based on the medieval pop song “Faulte d’argent” (“Lack of money” — the cantus firmus of most people’s life at the moment). However elaborate the counterpoint, the lines were beautifully clear, and the hushed, veiled voices, and recent events, lent a particular poignancy to Festa’s “Quis dabit oculis nostris”, a lament for the French Queen. Josquin was there, too, with an “Alma redemptoris mater/Ave regina caelorum” whose two texts, sung simultaneously, were so skilfully managed that they never clashed.
A last word of praise must go to the ensemble’s diction. Even during their encore, Clemens non Papa’s “Ego flos campi”, for which we didn’t have the text, every word was audible.