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Josquin des PRÉS (c.1440-1521)
Missa Sine Nomine [27:39]
Missa ad Fugam [31:30]
The Tallis Scholars/Peter Phillips
rec. Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, Salle, Norfolk, England, 2007. DDD.
Notes, texts and translations included – as a pdf. document for downloads.


Experience Classicsonline

Having recently placed Palestrina at the top of the pedestal of polyphonic composers in my review of his Masses Benedicta es and Nasce la gioja mia (GIMSE402 - review), it would be quite illogical of me now to unseat him. The truth is, however, that league tables have no more place in music than they should have in education; if Palestrina is top of the league, there are plenty of other very worthwhile contenders. None has a greater claim to be such a leading contender than Josquin who, though he died two years before Palestrina was born, was an influence in his development, the Missa Benedicta es being inspired by Josquin’s setting of the motet of that name.

Josquin’s best-known Mass settings are based on the cantus firmus of a well-known secular tune, L’homme armé. Both are included, with other works, on an excellent Gimell recording by the Tallis Scholars, one of their 2-for-1 anniversary issues (The Tallis Scholars Sing Josquin, CDGIM206). That is probably the place to start for those new to Josquin – available in CD format and also as downloads from Gimell’s website: £7.99 for 320kbps mp3 and £9.99 for WMA or FLAC lossless format. The Oxford Camerata also offer a very fine version of one of them, the Missa l’homme armé sexti toni on Naxos 8.553428. 

The new recording of the Missa Sine Nomine and Missa ad Fugam would be a logical follow-up. It, too, is available as a download – indeed, the download version preceded the availability of the CD in this case – in mp3 at £7.99 or lossless format for £9.99. Having already assured myself of the quality of Gimell’s mp3 downloads, I chose the former and was thoroughly satisfied with the quality of the sound. Listening through headphones, there is the very slightest hint of edginess at some of the climaxes, but nothing to cause any serious concern. 

Younger listeners with keener hearing, however, may prefer one of the lossless versions, perhaps even one of the Super Audio 24-bit versions at £15.99. These, it is claimed, exceed CD quality but they do represent very large files at up to 1148MB – a daunting size unless you have super-fast broadband and a generous monthly allocation from your provider. CD quality at £9.99 and 282MB looks a more reasonable proposition. 

Don’t be put off if you read Peter Phillips’ notes on the Gimell website – offered free, even to non-purchasers – with their reference to the fact that these two Masses are based on canons – are, indeed, his only two surviving complete Masses in this form. Only musicologists and mathematicians need concern themselves with this fact; the music is thoroughly approachable without any such consideration. Just sit back and enjoy as it lifts your spirits, or read the lucid explanation in the notes of what a canon is, if you prefer. Even Peter Phillips in those excellent notes admits to having listened with enjoyment to pieces of music from all periods without spotting that they had canons buried within them. 

Nor need the academic-sounding title of the Tallis Scholars put anyone off. Their performances are certainly based on sound scholarship and have changed subtly over the years, in accordance with scholarly research, since I first heard their performance of Allegri’s Miserere and Palestrina’s Missa Papæ Marcelli, now offered again at budget price on CD and download (GIMSE401). The highlight for me of that first recording was not these well-known works, however, but their performance of Mundy’s then unknown Vox Patris Cælestis. That spirit of enlightened scholarship, bringing little-known works to our attention, continues with this Josquin programme, premiere recordings, as far as I am aware, and certainly the only version of either work in the current catalogue. 

The Missa ad Fugam is the earlier work, from the beginning of Josquin’s career. It might have been more logical to have placed this first since, as the notes explain, the canonic form is easier to follow and, therefore, it would be the more approachable for modern listeners. Neither Mass is known to be based on existing material, hence their rather unusual names, since most of Josquin’s Masses are known by the religious or secular piece on which they are based. Sine Nomine literally means ‘no-name’. The name ad Fugam reminds us of the close relation between the canon and the later fugal form – cf. the canonic writing in Bach’s Musical Offering and Art of Fugue. 

One manuscript of Missa ad Fugam contains variant versions of two movements, the Sanctus and Agnus Dei. Whether these are the work of Josquin himself, as Phillips hypothesises, they are in his mature style and their inclusion here is very welcome. 

The Missa Sine Nomine dates from the end of Josquin’s career. Though the working of the canonic material here is more complicated, the music is just as approachable. These are two excellent discoveries, in no way inferior to Josquin’s better-known music. 

The performances, with two voices per part throughout, are excellent – cooler than those offered by some other groups but, for me, all the more beautiful for their coolness, and never aloof. I’ve been playing this recording repeatedly, so I have no hesitation in making it my Recording of the Month, despite the fact that I have some CDs waiting in my in-tray which are likely to prove strong challengers. Even if you haven’t yet followed my earlier advice to start with the l’homme armé Masses, this is an essential purchase for all lovers of polyphony. Why not buy or download both recordings whilst you’re about it? 

One small reservation – why was a secular subject, part of Hans Memling’s Vanity, the central panel of his triptych Earthly Vanity and Divine Salvation, chosen for the cover? It’s an important and attractive painting by one of Josquin’s contemporaries, but hardly relevant to the music.

Brian Wilson

Just in case anyone is confused by my maths with regard to the timings of the two Josquin masses in this Gimell review, the two separate times don't add up to the full length of the CD because I didn't itemise the appendix containing the revised versions of the Sanctus and Agnus Dei. These two tracks add a further 7:45 to the playing time, making the total as shown. Brian Wilson


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