European music for the Christ-Child and His Mother
The Brabant Ensemble, Stephen Rice
St John’s, Smith Square, 11 December 2018
The 33rd St John’s, Smith Square Christmas Festival has taken a slightly more eclectic approach to the traditional seasonal offerings, although its roots in early music remain, as exemplified by this concert by The Brabant Ensemble, directed by Stephen Rice. Their programme focussed on Mary, the focus for devotion in the late Renaissance era. The geographical focus was, as the group’s name suggests, the old Duchy of Brabant, covering present-day parts of Belgium and the Netherlands. The Franco-Flemish composers included Josquin, Lassus, and Josquin’s contemporary Pierre de la Rue in the 500th year of his death together with the latter composers, Clemens non Papa, Crecquillon, and Mouton, with his well-known Nesciens mater.
The concert opened with the most recent piece of the evening, the first of Lassus’s two six-part setting of Alma redemptoris mater, its polyphonic texture gently unwinding. It was followed by one of the earliest pieces, Josquin’s Ave Maria . . . virgo serena, probably dating from around 1485. His early mastery of imitative writing is evident in the piece that made his name, and remains one of the best-known pieces of the period. Antoine de Févin may be less well known than other composers in the programme, but the Kyrie & Gloria from his Missa Ave Maria (based on the preceding Josquin Ave Maria) was particularly impressive. Expanding the short original piece into a substantial Mass setting, Févin brings his own distinctive musical ideas to the fore. The expansive texture on the words Jesu Christe, his use of the interval of a 4th and rising scale motifs, and the fine concluding Amen made this one of the highlights of the evening, not least for the impressive consort singing of The Brabant Ensemble, perhaps helped by the fact the one-third of the nine singers were sisters.
Pierre de la Rue’s ebullient Magnificat sexti toni concluded the first half, its power the more prominent as a result of the group’s earlier gently unforced singing. The second half featured extracts from two Masses by de la Rue, the dark mood of the Sanctus from the Missa Nuncqua fue pena mayor contrasting with the emotionally intense Agnus Dei from the Missa Inviolata. The final piece was Mouton’s Nesciens mater its complex polyphony an example of Renaissance musical mathematics with its complex canonic structure, creating eight parts out of four.
The encore saw a change of country and style, with Hieronymus Praetorius’s impressively Italianate Joseph, lieber Joseph mein. An impressive concert, given to a select audience.