The ears of the Huguenots

Huelgas Ensemble, Paul Van Nevel
65:09
deutsche harmonia mundi 88985411762
Music by Animuccia, Costeley, de L’Estocart, Goudimel, Le Jeune, Mauduit, Palestrina, Servin & anon

The unexpectedly varied music of the early Protestant church and home is presented beautifully here by the voices and strings of the Huelgas Ensemble. The CD opens with plain but harmonically imaginative four-part psalm settings by Jacques Mauduit and Claude Goudimel. Inventively varying the performance medium between various permutations of voices and strings, as would have undoubtedly been the case in the mainly domestic performances of this music at the time, the ensemble capture perfectly its dignified elegance and understated nobility. Goudimel was one of many Huguenots who perished in the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacres of 1572, and tellingly this CD includes a section of music eligible to have been performed in Rome on receipt of the ‘good news’ of the Massacres. This militantly counter-reformation repertoire features a curious anonymous 16th-century lauda  and music by Giovanni Animuccia and Palestrina, the Agnus Dei from whose Messa ‘Ut re mi fa sol la’  is perhaps an oddly placatory choice given the circumstances. The third and most interesting section of the programme explores the slightly later and more adventurous music by some mainly Huguenot ‘big hitters’ – Paschal de L’Estocart, Claude le Jeune and the until recently almost completely overlooked Jean Servin. Setting text from the rhyming Latin Psalter by Scottish intellectual George Buchanan, Servin’s eight-part Stellata coeli  is one of several masterpieces the composer produced in a volume presented to James VI, King of Scots. In one of the great what-ifs of musical history, due to circumstances, this type of opulent Protestant polyphony failed to take root at this time, although we can perhaps hear faint pre-echoes of Schütz here. By some way, this is the most interesting music on the CD, and it is a shame that a second Servin piece promised by the programme notes seems to have ended up on the cutting-room floor. On reflection it would have been more interesting to have cut the rather gratuitous counter-reformation section and to have included more Servin – but perhaps the ensemble will return to the sizeable and idiosyncratic Servin legacy in the future.

D. James Ross