Friday 13 May 2022

The Earth Moves: The Tallis Scholars in Antoine Brumel and David Lang

The Tallis Scholars (Photo Nick Rutter)
The Tallis Scholars (Photo Nick Rutter)

The Earth Moves
 - Antoine Brumel, Nicolas Gombert, David Lang; The Tallis Scholars, Peter Phillips; Church of St Martin in the Fields
Reviewed 12 May 2022 (★★★★)

Pairing Brumel's astonishing Earthquake Mass with the UK premiere of David Lang's specially commissioned contemporary companion, to create a concert like no other

Missa Et ecce terræ motus by the Franco-Flemish composer Antoine Brumel (c.1460-c.1520), the so-called Earthquake Mass is one of those works that tends to be more talked about than performed, a work better known to singers than to audience members. It is somewhat sui generis, a 12-voice mass in which Brumel creates atmospheres and textures that are a long way from the densely worked polyphony of many of his contemporaries, in fact the work it most strongly resembles in terms of sound is Thomas Tallis' 40-part motet Spem in alium.

Peter Phillips and The Tallis Scholars performed Antoine Brumel's Missa Et ecce terræ motus at the church of St Martin in the Fields on Thursday 12 May 2022, pairing the work with the UK premiere of sun-centred by American composer David Lang (born 1957) which was commissioned by Phillips to go with the Brumel. The five movements of each work were interleaved, creating a single and striking whole.

A pupil of Josquin des Pres, Brumel is one of the few members of the Franco-Flemish school of composers who was actually French. He was fond of using canon in his masses, but apart from Missa Et ecce terræ motus all Brumel's other surviving masses are four-part. For Missa Et ecce terræ motus he took as his cantus firmus a fragment of plainchant from the Antiphon from the Lauds of Easter, 'And behold, there was a great earthquake: for the Angel of the Lord descended from heaven, alleluia'. This gave Brumel a motif that was hardly a melody at all. Creating a canon in three voices from it, stark and rather uninteresting harmonically, Brumel then surrounds this structure with extreme decoration. Philip Phillips describes it as being akin to Islamic art, 'static, non-representational, tirelessly inventive', but underneath there are those long notes of the basic canon, and this Brumel uses to give the work shape and structure.

It is defiantly non-Reformation and non-Counter-Reformation, there are no traces of the words here and precious few inventive structures. There is no refined balance and voice leading, instead we get a glorious noise the aural equivalent of one of those highly decorative late Gothic cathedrals. It is large scale and sumptuous. The work was probably written around 1497, but we know that after Brumel's death it was performed at the Bavarian court around 1570. For this performance the mass was recopied, supervised by Orlandus Lassus who was maestro di capella to Duke Albrecht, and Lassus sang Tenor II, we know because the manuscript has the names of the 33 men who sang the nine lower parts (the boys were not recorded). That's quite an ensemble. If we assume around 16 boys then we have a choir of 50, imagine the glorious noise that that would make in a large space. This performance and this manuscript are important as this is the only surviving manuscript of the work.

Unfortunately, it has not survived well and the Agnus Dei is patchy with lots of holes in the paper. When the Tallis Scholars recorded the mass, they used a scholarly reconstruction of the movement, but for this performance they used the Agnus Dei from as Nicolas Gombert's Missa Tempore Paschalis, based on the same chant notes as the Brumel mass and for the same number of voices, very likely written in homage to Brumel's mass.

At first the music seemed like a glorious mess, and the Kyrie did make me think of Tallis, but once your ears became accustomed you could sense structure underneath, and Brumel varies his forces thinning things down and in later movements like the Credo having groups in dialogue. There is a nod to comprehensibility in the opening of the Credo, but it doesn't last, the supreme decorator gets busy again. the Sanctus had a terrific sense of building in the opening section, but then the Pleni is almost light. And again for the Benedictus, he thins textures down before adding more voices. What you notice is the almost Minimalist style of construction; oh, the music isn't minimal at all, but like the classic works of someone like Philip Glass, Brumel sets up a decorative pattern, lets it run and then changes suddenly and it is these changes of gear that give the work its impetus.  Gombert's Agnus Dei was also richly textured and had a similar feel, bringing the mass to a conclusion with glorious waves of sound.

It worked well with just 12 voices in St Martin in the Fields, but I still hanker after a performance with 50 singers in a larger acoustic.

David Lang, co-founder of the American musical collective Bang on a Can, is best known for his 2007 work, The Little Match Girl Passion; written for Paul Hiller and Theatre of Voices it has been taken up by many other ensembles. For his companion piece to the Brumel, Lang wrote sun-centred, a deeply philosophical work based on a pun. When tried by the Roman Catholic Church for his claim that the Earth moved around the Sun, Galileo formally recanted but is reputed to have said at the end of the process, 'and yet it moves'. This is the final text of Lang's work, he opens with his own adaptation of Galileo's speech at the trial and in between there is Francis Bacon, one of the Psalms and Plato.

Whilst Lang's language is very, very different to Brumel's there are commonalities. Whilst the text he sets is deeply philosophical, apart from the opening movement which sets Galileo's speech for a solo baritone with just four other singers, clarity of text is not important to Lang, it is simply a means of inspiration. And texture is the overarching theme, and variety of textures. Each movement is laid out for different voices, building from just five in the opening to full ensemble at the end, and within each movement, Lang uses different groups of singers, layering differently moving sequences to create hypnotic patterns. There was also the feeling that in each movement Lang was emulating a different school of contemporary minimalism so that for the fourth one, we seemed if not in the world of Arvo Pärt, then highly adjacent. 

Like the Brumel, this was ultimately a highly contemplative work where the differences came from the subtle interplay of complex rhythmic layering. This required precision and naturalism from the singers, something they do well in the music of Arvo Pärt and John Tavener, and did equally well here. I will be quite frank, I am not sure what effect Lang's work would have had on me if it was heard on its own in toto, but as a counterpart to the Brumel, interleaving movement by movement, it worked well.

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