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.
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