The early music pioneer Noah Greenberg once wrote of Gustav Reese's books, Music in the Middle Ages and Music in the Renaissance, that they 'not only opened up six or seven centuries of music hitherto known only to certain scholars in the United States, but also gave us insight into almost every aspect of the creation and making of music in European civilization.' What is truly remarkable about his comments is that they still hold fast today. Despite the many histories of music that that been published since, one still finds that Reese's books are a touchstone for early music, and it comes as no surprise to find that he is one of the few writers to have included Pierre Moulu in his history, despite the scant biographical information that survives.
Gustav Reese wasn't the first scholar to write about Moulu however. In the flurry of musicological activity that marked the second half of the nineteenth century, August Wilhelm Ambros bought the complex mathematical system behind Missa Alma redemptoris mater to light and ensured its place as a footnote in several subsequent academic studies. Yet despite such persistence on the periphery of music history Moulu has, amazingly, escaped any extended exploration in performance until now. Thankfully, Stephen Rice and The Brabant Ensemble are making inroads into such neglected mid-sixteenth century repertoire. Their discography has already explored a generation of composers who followed in Josquin's wake: Manchicourt, Crecquillon, Gombert, Clemens non Papa, Phinot. And now they bring us a whole disc of Moulu.
The Brabant Ensemble begin their programme with the intriguing motet Mater floreat, which may have been written for the wife of Francis I in 1517. This in itself suggests that Moulu was at some point connected with the royal court, yet what makes this motet particularly interesting is that the text is a tribute to many famous French musicians: Dufay, Busnois, Févin, Mouton, Longueval, Brumel, Isaac and, of course, Josquin himself. The first half of the motet ends with an astonishing line, 'may the incomparable Josquin win the prize', which lends weight to Ronsard's remark in Livre des meslanges (Paris, 1560) that Moulu was a pupil of Josquin.
Next on this programme is Missa 'Missus est Gabriel angelus', which takes Josquin's motet as a model in the manner of a parody mass. In fact, the debt this work pays to Josquin is quite noticeable, especially in the gentle unfolding of the 'Kyrie' and the exquisite imitation in the 'Agnus dei' on 'peccata mundi, miserere nobis'. After the exquisite responsory In pace, the programme ends with Moulu's most famous mass, the Missa Alma Redemptoris mater. This was the work that so intrigued Ambros over a hundred years ago because it can be performed in one of two ways: straight through or with all the rests longer than a minim omitted to create a shorter version. Here The Brabant Ensemble perform the short option but also include the Kyrie and Agnus dei in their longer versions.
The Brabant Ensemble is a young group, but despite the youthfulness of some of the voices there is no lack of stylistic understanding. This whole album sounds easy and unhurried – perhaps a little too easy at times, but always with great integrity in the phrasing and ensemble. Occasionally they forget to imbue some of the larger intervallic leaps with the yearning qualities I suspect that Moulu was suggesting – victims of their own vocal excellence, no less. But the overall quality of the singing is of a hushed reverence created mainly by the soft French pronunciation that so characterises this ensemble's sound. Not only has Stephen Rice and his ensemble brought some really beautiful music to our attention they have also offered some of their most elegant performances so far.
In reviewing this disc I am reminded of another thing that Noah Greenberg wrote back in the 60s, 'it was not the givers of conventional concerts who opened up their programmes to the repertory of early music, but the record companies – and, for the most part, not the large record companies (who could have easily afforded to do it) but the small ones'. He could be speaking today, for while the large companies continue to release so many early music 'favourites', it falls to smaller companies like Hyperion to explore neglected repertoire (in this case with support from the Arts & Humanities Research Council). Without this amazing record label the early music scene would be immeasurably poorer. Enthusiasts and practitioners of early music the world over miss The Brabant Ensemble's recordings at their peril.
By Ed Breen