Ashewell; Lassus; Palestrina

COMPOSERS: Ashewell; Lassus; Palestrina
LABELS: Harmonia Mundi
ALBUM TITLE: La Quinta essentia
WORKS: Ashewell: Missa ‘Ave Maria’
Lassus: Missa ‘Tous les regretz’
Palestrina: Missa Ut re mi fa sol la


PERFORMER: Huelgas Ensenble/Paul Van Nevel

This disc seeks to capture ‘quintessential’ characteristics of Renaissance polyphony – the limpid clarity of classicists (Palestrina), the vitality of Masses influenced by secular music (Lassus) and the ‘flamboyant Gothic’ style of England (Ashewell). Scholars may squirm at such essentialism, but the programming ingeniously compels close listening and allows van Nevel to showcase his interpretive powers. The result is a performance of breathtaking technical mastery and originality.

What distinguishes the Huelgas-Ensemble from rival groups is the refinement of the singers’ blend and their sensitivity to melodic gesture. The sound is at once disembodied yet urgent. Sinewy lines, shaped with conviction, inexorably draw the listener into the musical fabric. Van Nevel has long been controversial. Steeped in this repertory, his readings are sensual, obsessive and often idiosyncratic. Although his eschewal of pulse may exasperate some, he never loses sight of the relationship between text and music, the implied paragraphing or the movement’s larger structure. His non-cerebral approach leaves van Nevel free to explore startling contrasts to articulate each Mass’s ‘essence’, whether translucent (Palestrina), vigorous (Lassus) or rhapsodic (Ashewell). The unique acoustic of the recording venue – the 19th-century Museum of Water in Lisbon – apparently helped the ensemble discover effects buried in the score, and the engineering ably transmits the charms of this space. Purists may prefer earlier recordings of these works, but the new terrain here marked out beckons more adventurous spirits.


Berta Joncus