The Huelgas Ensemble, directed by its founder Paul van Nevel, began as the result of the previous generation's work in early music performance, led by, among others, Thomas Binkley and David Munrow. Remarkably, after nearly 50 years, the ensemble retains a sense of excitement, innovation, and discovery, long after the mass recording industry and the new age movement co-opted the esoteric sounds of the Middle Ages and Renaissance.
While at the Schola Cantorum Basilensis, van Nevel founded the Huelgas Ensemble in 1971, borrowing the name from the Codex Las Huelgas, as a rediscovered instrumentarium of cornettos, sackbuts, recorders, and crumhorns were jubilantly being applied to early music performances. The Huelgas Ensemble then sat at the center of the movement toward "authentic" performance practices, and its interpretations were strongly influential. As the scholarly and performative norms for medieval music have changed, so has the sound of Huelgas, most prominently depicted in its increased vocalizations, but the ensemble has retained a mantle of eccentricity and innovation.
Nearly every aspect of director van Nevel's performances has been subject to experimentation over his career. From the group's inception, reliable and evocative ornamentation was a goal for both instrumentalists and singers. The ensemble constantly upsets expectations through scoring and orchestration. A 1994 program of Music for King Janus of Nicosia presents some pieces at half or less the expected tempo, losing the text, but richly extending the pungency of dissonances. In the same year, Huelgas released a recording of the Lassus Lagrime di San Pietro juxtaposed with a performance by an all-vocal ensemble led by Philippe Herreweghe. A 1999 recording dedicated to Alexander Agricola includes some striking chromatic manipulations of the so-called "Secret Chromatic Art." At all times, van Nevel's approach to his repertory has been fearlessly innovative, despite criticism both from scholars and from other performers.
Another area of van Nevel's musical boldness, that of musical repertory, has been perhaps the ensemble's greatest contribution to our musical world. The director's scholarly interests lead him toward little-known manuscripts -- the Turin manuscript (1985), the Naples collection of L'Homme Armé Masses (1990), the Huelgas Codex (1999) -- and less-appreciated composers including Gombert (1993), Constanzo Festa (1994), Mattheus Pipelare (1996), Pierre de Manchicourt (1998), Matteo da Perugia (1998), and Alexander Agricola (1999). The Huelgas Ensemble brought out the only "complete works" recording of Johannes Ciconia as early as 1982, has given the world-premiere recording of the Brumel "Earthquake" Mass, and undertook a fascinating collaboration with the Portuguese singers of fado called Tears of Lisbon. In each case, the lively and compelling performances have stretched musical boundaries.
The Huelgas Ensemble has recorded for Harmonia Mundi, Deutsche Harmonia Mundi, and Sony Classical, among others. It has won numerous awards, including two Diapason d'Ors, Caecilia Prizes, the Preis der deutschen Schallplattenkritik, and four Echo Klassiks. In 2019, van Nevel led the Huelgas Ensemble on the Deutsche Harmonia Mundi album The Ear of Christopher Columbus.
© Timothy Dickey /TiVo