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JOSQUIN (Des Pres) (c.1440–1521)
Missa Sine Nomine [27.39]
Missa Ad fugam [31.30]
Missa Ad Fugam (revised): Sanctus and Benedictus [4.47]; Agnus Dei [2.55]
The Tallis Scholars/Peter Phillips
rec. Church of Satin Peter and Saint Paul, Salle, Norfolk, England, no date given
GIMELL CDGIM039 [68.50]
Experience Classicsonline

This disc from the Tallis Scholars is promised as the first in a new series of Josquin masses. Here Peter Phillips and his group present two Josquin masses which would seem to come from opposite ends of Josquin’s career. Both masses are entirely based on canons.
Missa Ad Fugam is an early work. In it the canon is always between the top part and the third part down, and always a fifth apart. All five movements start with the same material, so all start with the same canonic opening. Josquin’s writing is easy to follow and transparent, with the non-canonic lines - the second and fourth parts - often hardly joining in at all. Dating of the mass owes something to stylistic concerns as the canonic writing is far stiffer than would have happened in Josquin’s later examples. But there also exists an original source in the library of Jena University in which someone, possibly Josquin, has re-worked the canon in the Sanctus and Agnus. These changes owe rather more to Josquin’s later style, the revisions providing tauter thinking which contrasts with the long lines of the original. On this disc, the Tallis Scholars rather usefully record both the original and the revisions, which allows us a rare glimpse into a composer’s revisions from the medieval period.
By contrast the Missa Sine Nomine is a prime example of Josquin’s later mature style. The work comes just before his last mass setting, the Missa Pange lingua. In his article in the CD booklet Peter Phillips suggests that this may have been written by Josquin as a deliberate foil to the earlier mass, to show what he was now capable of. If, as is presumed, Josquin studied with Ockeghem then the quote from Ockeghem’s Nymphes des bois in the Credo (at the words et incarnatus est) may be Josquin’s tribute to his late master’s famed dexterity with the canonic form.
Missa Sine Nomine is a far denser, less transparent work than its predecessor. The canons are distributed all over the score, rather than being confined to particular voices, and Josquin makes things more complex by introducing canonic imitation as well as pure canon. Of course none of this really matters; the mass can be listened to without any knowledge of its construction. That is part of Josquin’s genius and probably his way of showing off; to construct something so fine and so complex and to disguise the construction mechanism so perfectly.
The Tallis Scholars recorded both works with choirs of eight singers, two per part. No recording date is provided, but given that both Philip Cave and James Gilchrist are included in the line-up points to a recording date rather earlier than 2008, the year of publication.
The masses are performed in the Tallis Scholars familiar and inimitable style. Lines are beautifully shaped and delineated, the interplay between the different voices is shaded perfectly and the polyphony is beautifully transparent and easy to follow. The performance is well modulated; vibrato is sparing which means that each line has strength and integrity. A detractor could describe these performances as coolly English, verging on icy perfection. To which you might reply that all the passion is in the nuances and phrasing.
I could imagine these masses sung by one of the more recent choral groups, performed intensely and vibrantly with, perhaps, one to a part. That would be an entirely different performance and just as valid. After all we know little of the performance practices of the choirs for which Josquin wrote these pieces.
Admirers of the Tallis Scholars will definitely want these discs. Admirers of Josquin masses can buy them in the secure knowledge that they will be getting near perfection of execution.
Robert Hugill

see also review by Brian Wilson



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