This latest release in The Tallis Scholars’ evolving series of the complete Mass settings of Josquin brings us what Peter Phillips calls “two of Josquin’s most intense canonic Masses”.
The more expansive Missa De beata virgine
is one of his later works and, as Peter Phillips says in his excellent note, it may be that it was not conceived as a unified setting for while the Kyrie and Gloria are in four parts the texture expands to five parts for the remaining movements. Whether the Mass is a unity or not it contains some very fine music.
The first two sections of the Kyrie – ‘Kyrie eleison’ and ‘Christe eleison’- are quite austere but then for the second ‘Kyrie’ the music becomes more dramatic. The Gloria includes several lines of Marian tropes, interpolated at various points in the standard text, so even if you’re familiar with the words of the Ordinary of the Mass it’s as well to have the booklet at hand. These interpolations were included in the first edition of the Mass but were removed from the manuscript after the Council of Trent (1545-1563). Josquin’s setting of the Gloria opens with joyful canonic writing; this is virtuosic music and it’s superbly sung. The ‘Qui tollis’ section is more reflective and here Phillips ensures that his singers sustain the lines really well. The end of the movement is especially fine. Starting at the interpolated words ‘Mariam coronans’ (‘Crowning Mary’) the music is soft and prayerful before a final eruption of joy beginning at ‘Cum Sancto Spiritu’.
There’s some complex writing in the Credo but here – and throughout the disc – Peter Phillips and his expert singers ensure that the polyphonic strands are all delivered with great clarity; yet, despite the clarity, by some alchemy everything also blends together beautifully. The Sanctus is prayerful and gently expansive at the start but at ‘Pleni sunt caeli’ the music becomes livelier and more extrovert while the ‘Hosanna’ is livelier still – positively jubilant, in fact. The Benedictus is fairly relaxed but the reprise of the ‘Hosanna’ provides a good contrast. In the Agnus Dei the second ‘Agnus’ features extended two-part writing for tenor and bass but the full ensemble is restored for the serene third ‘Agnus’, which draws this Mass setting to a beautiful close.
Much though I enjoyed the music of Missa De beata virgine
I found the earlier Missa Ave maris stella
even more attractive. The Mass is prefaced by a verse of the plainchant on which it is based. This is sung by a solo tenor, the excellent Christopher Watson, and I found it really helpful to hear the chant in immediate proximity to the Mass. Peter Phillips describes Josquin’s writing as “everywhere ..smooth and assured”. So it is – and that’s an equally valid description of the way in which it is sung.
There’s masterly four-part writing in the opening stretches of the Gloria. The music for the ‘Qui tollis’ section is slower and more inward than the music that has preceded it but the writing is no less intense at this point. In the Credo I was greatly taken with the lovely ‘Et incarnatus est.’ At ‘Et resurrexit’ there’s a new fervour both to the music and the singing and that’s sustained for the rest of the movement. The Sanctus includes some vital, vigorous writing at ‘Pleni sunt caeli’ and in the ‘Hosanna’. In these passages one is at the same time aware of the skilful canonic writing and yet also not conscious of it, so naturally and fluently do the singers unfold it. The Agnus Dei contains some beautifully flowing music, which is delivered superbly.
Between these two enthralling Mass settings we hear a separate setting of the Credo. This is in four parts (ATBarB) and for the most part the two inner voices sing in canon while the alto and bass lines twine on either side of the canon, as it were. The exception is the ‘Et incarnatus est’, which is homophonically set, producing a most effective moment of repose in the midst of the canonical writing. The canonical style resumes, rather reflectively, at ‘Crucifixus’ before ‘Et resurrexit’ inspires a fresh burst of energy, which is sustained to the end.
The performance standards are as exemplary as ever. The singing of The Tallis Scholars is flawless. Yet that description should not for one second imply anything cold or academic. These are vital performances that bring Josquin’s music vividly to life. The listener is engaged right from the start and consistently drawn onwards and into the music. As I’ve indicated, the clarity of the singing is a strong and consistent feature of these performances. No doubt it helps that the singers have been recorded beautifully by engineer Philip Hobbs in the lovely resonance of Merton Chapel. Documentation is, as ever, excellent from this source.
This disc is an essential purchase for anyone with an interest in Josquin’s music. Further volumes are eagerly awaited.