Concerts - Recordings - Research
Artistic director: Paul Van Nevel
About the Huelgas Ensemble
For over fifty years, the Huelgas Ensemble has been one of the most acclaimed ensembles specialising in the performance of polyphonic music from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. The ensemble is internationally renowned for its innovative programming, often featuring lesser-known works. The perspectives employed by the ensemble and its pitch precision consistently astonish audiences.
The historically informed interpretations of the Huelgas Ensemble are shaped by a profound understanding of the aesthetic principles of music and vocal practices from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Voices in the press and media repeatedly praise the ensemble's spontaneous vitality and extraordinary clarity in delivering its repertoire, consistently setting new standards. It is precisely these musical qualities that lead more and more contemporary composers to invite the Huelgas Ensemble to perform their works (including Wolfgang Rihm and James MacMillan).
The Huelgas Ensemble performs in internationally renowned venues, including the Lincoln Center (New York), Cité de la Musique (Paris), Berliner Philharmonie, Royal Albert Hall (BBC Proms, London), Wiener Konzerthaus, Concertgebouw (Amsterdam), Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian (Lisbon), Filharmonia Narodowa (Warsaw), BOZAR (Brussels), AMUZ (Antwerp), and Concertgebouw Bruges. The ensemble is also regularly featured at significant early music festivals, where it often performs in its 'natural environment' of centuries-old chapels, churches, and monasteries. In this way, it builds an interdisciplinary bridge between polyphonic music and architecture.
In 2019, the Huelgas Ensemble organized its very own 'Pentecost Festival' for the first time; an international festival held in the picturesque Burgundian village of Talant, near Dijon. The ensemble found an ideal platform for musical experiments, performances of entirely unknown outstanding repertoire, new concert forms and variations in concert setup, and musical interaction with the audience. The fact that the event is dedicated to a single ensemble is a new concept in the festival world.
The discography of the Huelgas Ensemble includes over one hundred and twenty recordings of vocal and instrumental works from the 12th to the early 17th century. It features works by Dufay, Brumel, de Rore, Richafort, de Kerle, Ferrabosco, Palestrina, Lassus, and Ashewell, among others. The ensemble has recorded for Seon, Sony Classical, Harmonia Mundi France, Deutsche Harmonia Mundi, Cypres, and ECM. Recent discography 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 : Twilight of the Middle Ages, The Mirror of Claudio Monteverdi, The Ear of the Huguenots, ET LUX by German composer Wolfgang Rihm for eight voices and string quartet, La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d’Alcina by Francesca Caccini (the first recording of the opera with reconstructed instrumental dances), The Music Prints of Christophe Plantin, The Ear of Theodoor van Loon, The Ear of Christopher Columbus, Simone de Bonefont : Missa pro mortuis, The Magic of Polyphony (3CD box-set, live recording of Pentecost Festival 2019), En Albion (polyphony from 14th century England), The Landscape of the Polyphonists, and Ludwig Daser: Polyphonic Masses.
In addition, the ensemble has made numerous radio recordings of concerts broadcast worldwide, as well as film recordings, including complete film productions, concert livestreams, documentaries, interviews, concert introductions by artistic director Paul Van Nevel, and experimental recordings in collaboration with video artists.
Paul Van Nevel and his ensemble have received numerous awards, including several Caecilia prizes from the Belgian music press, Choc du Monde de la Musique, Edison Classical Music Award, Cannes Classical Award for Early Music, Prix in Honorem from the Académie Charles Cros, Carrièreprijs from VRT Klara, a prize from the European Radio Union and the Canadian Radio, Preis der deutschen Schallplattenkritik, German ECHO Klassik (prizes in 1994, 1997, 2010, and 2011), several Diapason d'Or for various recordings, Diapason d'Or de l'année 2014, and Diapason d'Or de l'année 2015. More recent awards include Choc du mois from the magazine Classica in February 2017, Preis der deutschen Schallplattenkritik (Bestenliste 1/2017) for the CD recording The Mirror of Claudio Monteverdi, and OPUS KLASSIK 2019, the opera recording of the year award (opera up to the 18th century) for the CD recording Francesca Caccini: La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d’Alcina. In October 2022, the ensemble received a Choc d’or from the magazine Classica for the CD recording The Landscape of the Polyphonists, and the OPUS KLASSIK (Berlin) as the Ensemble of the year 2022 for the CD recording En Albion. Lastly, in October 2023, the ensemble received the prestigious Gramophone Award in the Early Music section for the CD recording Ludwig Daser: Polyphonic Masses.
The Huelgas Ensemble is supported by the Flemish Government, the city of Leuven, and the Catholic University of Leuven.
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.