Jean Mouton (1459–1522) was a beneficed priest whose composing career developed slowly in provincial France until 1501, when he took a position in Grenoble. Spotted by Anne of Brittany, Mouton jumped ship to work in her chapel and subsequently that of her son-in-law Francis I. He was probably therefore in charge of the musical festivities when the latter monarch hosted Henry VIII on the famous Field of the Cloth of Gold. From these lofty heights he attracted the attention of the Medici Pope, Leo X and died a revered master and wealthy man at a respectable age.
His most frequently recorded piece is the sublime Christmas antiphon, Nesciens Mater. The work has an instantly memorable main theme and an ingenious canonic structure, combining constraint with variety, to create one of the choral masterpieces of the 16th century. This disc, however, contains all of Mouton’s eight-part choral works in a veritable feast of polyphonic discoveries.
The centrepiece is his Missa Tu es Petrus which demonstrates that while Mouton may be rhythmically uniform, “his melody flows in a supple thread,” as 16th-century music theorist Heinrich Glarean put it. Indeed, it is this tuneful quality that makes the program so beguiling – it’s not always that eight-part polyphony that has you humming along. A typical “parody mass”, it weaves a known theme throughout each of the five movements, binding the whole and giving the listener a comforting sense of ongoing familiarity. Other gems include the joyous Exsultet Coniubilando – a politic musical puff for his patron, Leo X – and the lively Bona Vita, Bona Refectio which invites a community of priests to a slap-up feast.
Founded in 1998 by conductor and musicologist Stephen Rice, the Brabant Ensemble has, over the last ten years, taken a leading role in the rehabilitation of composers such as Nicolas Gombert, Thomas Crecquillon, and Pierre de Manchicourt. The 17 singers (men and women’s voices) are on marvellous form here: clear and flexible, low on vibrato but never astringent. The recording from the Church of St Michael, Oxford is ideally resonant while perfectly engineered to pinpoint Mouton’s beguiling inner details.
Surprisingly, this turns out to be the only CD in the current catalogue entirely dedicated to this choral master, but on this showing, as Rice says in his illuminating booklet notes, “Mouton is not just another sheep among the flock of Renaissance composers”. My advice is not to hesitate.