About the Huelgas Ensemble
For over forty years the Huelgas Ensemble has been one of the most celebrated ensembles specialising in the performance of polyphonic music from the Medieval and Renaissance periods. The ensemble is well known worldwide for its inventive programming, particularly of unknown masterpieces, delighting audiences again and again with fresh perspectives and the purest intonation.
The Huelgas Ensemble has performed in some of the world’s finest musical centres, including the BBC Proms in London, the Lincoln Center in New York, the Cité de la musique in Paris, the Berliner Philharmonie, the Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian in Lisbon, as well as the Centro Cultural de Belem (Lisbon). The ensemble also appears regularly at the greatest festivals for early music, where it often performs in its ‘natural habitat’ of ancient chapels, churches and abbeys, thus building an interdisciplinary bridge between architecture and polyphony through its concerts. Under the wing of BOZAR in Brussels, the ensemble has been running an annual concert cycle for thirty years.
Performances by the Huelgas Ensemble are characterized by an in-depth knowledge of the aesthetics and concepts of musical and vocal practices of the Medieval and Renaissance periods. The media and critics alike regularly heap praise on the ensemble for its lively and innovative approach to the repertoire, continuously setting the highest standards in its field. It is precisely for this reason that more and more contemporary composers seek the ensemble out to perform their works (Wolfgang Rihm, James MacMillan).
Since 2019, the Huelgas Ensemble also organizes its own festival every year. The Pentecost Festival in the picturesque village of Talant in Burgundy offers ample space for musical experiments, performances of entirely unknown repertoire of the highest standard, and interactive encounters with the public. A festival entirely dedicated to a single ensemble, an absolute novelty in the festival landscape.
The discography of the Huelgas Ensemble is comprised of over one hundred editions of vocal and instrumental works from the thirteenth to the beginning of the seventeenth century, for example: Dufay, Brumel, de Rore, Richafort, de Kerle, Ferrabosco, Palestrina, Lassus and Ashewell. These recordings have appeared on a variety of labels, including Seon, Sony Classical, Harmonia Mundi France, Deutsche Harmonia Mundi, Cypres and ECM. The discography of recent years includes The Eton Choirbook, The treasures of Claude Le Jeune, Le mystère de Malheur me bat, L’héritage de Petrus Alamire, The ear of Zurbáran, Firminus Caron - Twighlight of the Middle Ages, The mirror of Monteverdi, The ear of the Huguenots and a recording of ‘Et lux’, a work by the German composer Wolfgang Rihm, scored for eight singers and string quartet, Francesca Caccini’s ‘La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d’Alcina’ (the first recording of the opera to include reconstructed instrumental dances), The Music Prints of Christophe Plantin, The ear of Theodoor van Loon and The ear of Christopher Columbus.
Awards include: various Caecilia prizes from the Belgian press, ‘Choc du Monde de la Musique’ and ‘Diapason d’Or’, the ‘Edison Prize’, ‘Cannes Classical Award’ for Early Music, ‘Prix in Honorem’ of the Académie Charles Cros, the ‘Carrièreprijs’ of the classical music radio station ‘Klara’, a commendation of the ‘Europese Radio-Unie’ and the Canadian Broadcasting Cooperation, the ‘Preis der deutschen Schallplattenkritik’, the German music award ‘Echo Klassik’ 1994, 1997, 2010 and 2011, alongside the ‘Diapason d'Or de l'année 2014’ and the ‘Diapason d'Or de l'année 2015’. Most recently the ensemble was awarded a ‘Choc du mois’ in the February 2017 edition of ‘Classica’ magazine and a ‘Preis der deutschen Schallplattenkritik’ (Bestenliste 1/2017) for the CD recording The mirror of Monteverdi and the OPUS KLASSIK ‘18th century opera prize 2019’ for the CD recording of Francesca Caccini: ‘La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d’Alcina’.
Geert van Istendael | Belgian writer, essayist and lover of music | writes about Huelgas Ensemble:
Anyone, who in the seventies had the privilege to have attended one of the first concerts of Paul Van Nevel with the fledgling group Huelgas Ensemble, is still talking about it today. Two words spring to mind: awe and ecstasy. The ecstasy has remained, even after more than three decades. The awe at listening to the unfamiliar, new sounds of this ancient music, an echo from many hundreds of years ago, should normally ebb away with time. But it does not. The reason being Huelgas Ensemble does not want to leave the public stage. Time and again, it rejuvenates the works of those previously unheard of masters. Never are Paul or his vocalists fed up, never is their audience bored and any new audience is always over the moon.
A few years ago, during their first concert in New York, the prominent newspaper Newsday wrote of a finely tuned instrument and also mentioned how New York finally understood what it had been missing out on for all these years. The New York Times labeled the ensemble simply as superb. From the United States to Japan, similar words of praise are heard as well and, of course, through the whole of Europe too: in Saintes, Brussels, Rijsel, Klagenfurt, Evora and elsewhere.
Occasionally, Paul Van Nevel is likened to a detective of music, a Hercules Poirot or a Morse, whoever you prefer. And it is true, half of his time is spent scouring libraries. As the poem dedicated to this Illustrimus magister polyphoniae explains:
You break into paper dungeons,
you practice the patience of a key
and from the cages of the stave
you set Europe’s voices free
Paul Van Nevel’s ploughing through centuries old manuscripts has released names such as Nicolas Gombert, Claude Le Jeune, Johannes Ciconia, Pierre de Manchicourt and many others from the close circle of a few specialized musicologists. His research has also contributed to the incisive erudite precision with which Huelgas interpret their music. This interpretation embodies a broad understanding of the predominant views of music produced during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.
Needless to say, Paul Van Nevel is familiar with the old notation of music and text. But it does not stop there. The music is also placed within the intellectual and cultural time frame of the period it was created in. Classic rhetoric and the four humours are investigated, amongst others. The latter, for example, is considered in the case of the great medieval scholastic Albertus Magnus and the former with the teatro della memoria of the Italian humanist Giulio Camillo Delmimio. Also taken into account are the canons that were prevailing in literature while the selected composers were alive.
What is very distinctive about the sound of Huelgas Ensemble, is their extraordinary purity of sound. Each of the twelve voices manifests itself clearly and in doing so, simultaneously, contributes to a harmonic symphony, which is at times powerful, at other times delicate and often passionate. Huelgas Ensemble sounds like heaven and earth combined.
Not surprisingly, Paul Van Nevel and Huelgas are overloaded with awards. The Ceciliaprijs of the Belgian music press, the Choc de l’Année of Le Monde de la Musique, the Edison, the Cannes Classical Award for ancient music, the Prix in honorem of the Académie Charles Cros, an honorary award of both the European Radio Union and one from the Canadian Radio to mention but a few; this list is far from complete. It is also almost a certain guarantee for the music connoisseur to contain dozens of Huelgas Ensemble records in their collection. Huelgas record under the label Sony Classics (in the Vivarte-collection) and Harmonia Mundi France with great regularity.
Something is stirred within every time Huelgas Ensemble break the silence. It is by no means shocking or sensational, but it evokes profound humbleness, nostalgia and without doubt a deep respect and admiration for the strangely familiar beauty of the musical treasures Europe has to offer. This music comes to life from the moment the creative soul, that is Paul Van Nevel, is willing to discover them and for as long as he masterfully fine-tunes them.