This new recording was made available to download
several weeks in advance of its issue on CD, due on 2 March
2009. I’ve already reviewed that download in my February
2009, Download Roundup, where I made it joint Download of
the Month with the Chandos Purcell Dido and Æneas.
This is the promised more detailed review: as
I downloaded the CD-quality version complete with the booklet
and inserts you may take what I am reporting on to be the equivalent
of the finished disc. On past experience, their 320k mp3 downloads
are pretty good, too. Nor do I see any reason to modify the
accolade which I awarded to the download: this is a very worthy
Recording of the Month. If you don’t want to take my word for
it, avail yourself of the free track download for a limited
time from Gimell.
Peter Phillips’ notes for the new recording are also available
there – no purchase necessary – in English, French and German.
The Tallis Scholars have had plenty of practice
with Josquin, whom Peter Phillips rightly hails as the superstar
amongst renaissance composers. He delivers that judgement in
the booklet which comes with one of their earlier recordings
of Josquin, incredible value on a 2-for-1 issue The Tallis
Scholars Sing Josquin (CDGIM206) – Missa pange lingua,
Missa la sol fa re mi and the two masses based on
L’homme armé (Missa ... super voces musicales
and Missa ... sexti toni).
Even if you have the Oxford Camerata’s very good
performance of these (8.553428) you need the Gimell set, which
also replaces decent performances of Missa pange lingua (Ensemble
Organum/Marcel Pérès, recently reissued on Harmonia Mundi Gold
HMG50 1239) and Missa la sol fa re mi (Capella Antiqua/Konrad
Ruhland, BMG71966, no longer available) in my collection. Both
works benefit from the slower pace of The Tallis Scholars.
I haven’t heard the well-received Hyperion recording of Missa
pange lingua (CDA66614, Westminster Cathedral), now available
from their Archive service only, on which James O’Donnell’s
tempi are marginally slower even than those of the Tallis Scholars.
With a total playing time of almost two-and-a-half
hours, this reissue of recordings dating from 1986, 1989 and
1994 is just too good to pass by and can be confidently recommended
along with their other bargain twofers: Requiem (CDGIM205),
Christmas with the Tallis Scholars (CDGIM202 – see review),
Tudor Church Music (CDGIM209 and 210 – see review),
Palestrina (CDGIM204), Tallis (CDGIM203 – see review)
and Byrd (CDGIM208 – see review).
The existence of these inexpensive 2-CD collections
is the only small obstacle in the way of my recommending the
new CD unreservedly – they are just such good value that, if
you don’t have any of them, even if you have other good recordings
of these composers, such as Chapelle du Roi’s complete Tallis
(Signum), they should be your first port of call. I warn you
however, that if you don’t yet know Josquin’s music and purchase
CDGIM206, you’ll also want the new CD and last year’s issue
of Missa sine nomine and Missa ad fugam (CDGIM039
– see Robert Hugill’s review
and my own review
of this essential purchase for all lovers of polyphony).
The new performances engender the same sense
of unhurried timelessness that is to be found on their earlier
Josquin recordings. The cover picture chosen for CDGIM206 is
just right, though it antedates Josquin’s music by some 70 years
– Rogier van der Weyden’s The Magdalen Reading in the
London National Gallery. This is not the wildly penitent Mary
Magdalen often depicted in poetry and painting but a serene
and beautiful contemplative, painted in loving detail. Whether
by coincidence or not – probably not, having twice discussed
the suitability of cover paintings with Steve Smith of Gimell
– the names of both Josquin and Rogier mean ‘of the meadow(s)’
– the latter was also known as Rogelet de la Pasture – though
none quite rivals the wonderful name of the medieval poet Walther
von der Vogelweide, ‘Walter of the bird-meadow’.
The cover of the new CD is equally indicative
of the quality of The Tallis Scholars’ singing in this music.
Taken from the illustrations in King René’s Livre du Cueur
d’Amours Espris in the Austrian National Library (Cod.2597,
fol. 15r), it depicts the peaceful contemplation of the fountain
which in the previous episode wrought havoc – when the knight
poured the water from the drinking vessel onto the fountain,
it provoked a cataclysmic storm. The episode, if not exactly
archetypal, is borrowed from Yvain, le Chevalier au Lion,
by the progenitor of courtly love poetry, Chrétien de Troyes.
Josquin’s music, too, represents a calm in which the earlier
storm of the secular chanson is still recalled. As with
the L’homme armé masses Josquin sublimates the significance
of the secular work into the timeless words of the mass – words
which not even the coming reformation would change greatly,
at least in Lutheran and Anglican usage – ‘while at the same
time expressing the essential nature of the texts and driving
the musical argument forward’ as Phillips puts it in his excellent
The words of Busnois’ (or Brumel’s) chanson
Fortuna desperata are far from placid:
Iniqua e maledecta, maledecta
Che de tal dona electa
La fama hai denigrata.
[Desperate fortune, wicked and cursed, you have blackened the reputation
of such a marvellous lady].
Several composers made settings of the words,
including Josquin’s near-contemporary Agricola: a very well
received collection of his music on Naxos not only includes
his setting but employs it as the title of the programme (Unicorn
Ensemble/Michael Posch, 8.553840). There is a three-part instrumental
version, attributed by some to Josquin, and some thirty masses
which employ the tune as their cantus firmus, including
one by Obrecht. As none of these is currently available – though
there used to be a recording of the Obrecht by the Clemencic
Consort – I am happy to accept the word of musical historians
that Josquin’s is the most skilful.
It’s certainly a beautiful (early?) work and
I’m very pleased that the Tallis Scholars have given us this
excellent performance by which to enjoy it. An earlier recording,
coupled with settings of the chanson itself, seems to
have been deleted (ASV CDGAU220 – see review).
The same is equally true of the other mass, which employs Ockeghem’s
(or Malcort’s) Malheur me bat. The words of this chanson
are lost but were, no doubt, equally eloquent on the subject
of love’s misfortunes.
As always, the Gimell notes are scholarly yet
accessible. Bought with the CD or downloaded as a pdf. file,
the whole presentation maintains the high quality of the series
and perfectly complements the high quality of the performance
and recording. Phillips demonstrates how Josquin borrows from
all three vocal parts of the chanson Fortuna desperata
and even offers a convincing analysis of Josquin’s thought process
in both works.
Thankfully, The Tallis Scholars and their principal
rivals, Harry Christophers and The Sixteen, don’t compete in
Josquin – the latter have only two short Josquin pieces in their
current recorded repertoire, so I’m spared a difficult decision.
Where they do compete in later renaissance repertoire, I usually
find it almost impossibly difficult to decide between The Sixteen’s
usually more energetic performances and The Tallis Scholars’
generally more contemplative approach to the music: both almost
invariably produce thoroughly convincing and musical interpretations.
The Tallis Scholars and The Sixteen are not the
only players in the increasingly competitive Premier League
of renaissance music. I’ve recently been very impressed by
the Brabant Ensemble in Morales (Hyperion CDA67694 – see review)
and by the Binchois Consort’s recording of Dufay’s Missa
Se la face ay pale, set in liturgical context (Hyperion
CDA67715 – see review)
and, earlier, by Diabolus in Musica’s interpretation of the
Dufay, again in context (Alpha 051). The Binchois Consort also
recorded a first-class collection of shorter works by Josquin
and his contemporaries (CDA67183), but I think the new Gimell
recording would have a slight priority, even in the exalted
company mentioned in this paragraph, if I had to ration myself.
If you don’t have to ration yourself, I can promise that none
of the Gimell, Hyperion or Alpha recordings discussed in this
review will disappoint.
see also review
by Mark Sealey