Josquin DES PRES (c.1455-1521)
Messe Gaudeamus (1502-03) [21:10]
Les Fresques Musicales de Saint-Bonnet-Le-Chateau [25:15]
Groupe des instruments anciens de Paris
Ensemble des Chantres de Plain-Chant
rec. 1960, Paris
This label is dedicated to the restoration of LP recordings made in the 1960s and 1970s, and it has an acute eye for relatively obscure repertory in interesting performances. My last encounter, for example, was of chamber music by Onslow - still hardly a household name although there are now a number of similar new recordings available - in performances led by that excellent player Gérard Jarry dating from 1972.
The disc under review is older, and more obscure still. It was recorded in 1960 and is performed by the Groupe des instruments anciens de Paris and Ensemble des Chantres de Plain-Chant. They perform Josquin’s Messe Gaudeamus and the Groupe des instruments alone takes on the instrumental pieces collated under the title ‘Les Fresques Musicales de Saint-Bonnet-Le-Chateau’.
It’s true that there had been pioneering performances in ‘authentic’ style from the early days of recordings. One thinks of Violet Gordon Woodhouse for example in the 1920s. In French terms, however, it was Nadia Boulanger who made great strides in her Monteverdi recordings of the 1930s, and alongside her came recordings of the music of Couperin with instrumental and vocal ensembles directed by Jane Evrard that still have the power to move. But by 1960 the focus was even freer and the exploration of late fourteenth and early fifteenth century music on disc was progressing well.
Given the sketchy state of the Mass - the first edition contains no indication as to instrumentation - there is an element of flying in the dark about this early Des Pres performance. Some of the instrumental contributions do indeed sound implausible and their sonorities are often more exploratory than authoritative. Or at least as authoritative as one can get five hundred years on. The vocal soloists retain some quite florid vibratos and in a rather big acoustic - there is no specified location but it was surely quite a spacious church or cathedral - there is a degree of operatic intensity to the performance. Some of the vocal phrasing is rather too short-breathed, and for those versed on David Munrow’s near-contemporaneous performances this early French performance lacks his kind of communicative élan.
The instrumental works that form Les Fresques Musicales range from Desprez - or ‘des Pres’ - to Machaut, de Nesle, Narvaez, de la Torre and a host of anonymous little settings. In fact almost all the settings are compact, some a mere 30 seconds or so. The most effective playing is on the rebec and percussion, and on the solo organ. No instrumentalists or singers are credited, but these are the outstanding performers in my book; an element of chinoiserie creeps into the psalterion setting by von Reuenthal called Mayenzeit. The clavicord is a very nasal sounding instrument.
Still these are, for all their problems, in many ways highly engaging performances even when - perhaps mostly when - a bit rough and ready. I’m not sure what kind of prospective market awaits a disc such as this, which also only lasts 46 minutes, but I’m glad it’s been restored.
Jonathan Woolf  

Highly engaging performances if a bit rough and ready.