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GRAMOPHONE (01/2017)
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Fra Bernardo

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Reviewer: Edward Breen

This double album of motets by Nicolas Gombert (c1495-1560) from the vocal ensemble Beauty Farm is their second release, offering several more first recordings and adding considerably to our picture of this intriguing Renaissance composer. A small change of personnel since their previous album leads to a richer, denser sound. This feels like a calculated move, since Jorge Martín’s booklet-notes refer to a famous passage in Practica musica (1556) by the theorist Hermann Finck where Gombert’s style is described as innovative because it ‘avoids pauses, and his work is rich with full harmonies and imitative counterpoint’.

Finck’s description serves, I would suggest, as a summation of both Gombert’s style and Beauty Farm’s performance. Qualities which I previously related to the Hilliard Ensemble and admired afresh in Beauty Farm – ‘never hurrying, never obviously cadencing’ – are amplified on this new album, in which one feels as if great slabs of rich, dense polyphony are served up with relish. Richness and density can, however, loom too large at times, as occassionally Beauty Farm deny Gombert’s polyphony a sense of spaciousness. This tends to happen through relatively brief final chords and is then further condensed by short gaps between the motets themselves, and occasionally the motethalves. On disc 2, Suscipe verbum barely ceases resounding before In te Domine speravi arrives all too soon to create an awkward junction.

Yet there is so much to enjoy on this album, especially from the spicy harmonic twists of Hortus conclusus, previously recorded at higher pitch by the Brabant Ensemble (Hyperion, A/07). This track demonstrates what is rapidly becoming the trademark style of Beauty Farm: an extremely rich, treacly sound from lower voices whose carefully cultivated homogeneity sublimates dissonance. To this end, there is a superb rendition of Media vita which alone is worth the album price.

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