For all that research can tell us, Josquin des Prez remains
something of a mystery to modern music-lovers. The greatness
of his music is in no doubt, however. This Franco-Flemish composer
redefined what was expected of church music. While it’s going
too far to say that he invented polyphony, he cemented it into
the pattern of church music so that, after him, its continuation
was in no doubt.
The choir of Westminster Cathedral are ideal interpreters of
his work. Long established as one of this country’s finest church
choirs, they blend impeccable refinement with an edge of character
that makes them quite unique. In the Mass, for example, my first
impression of the boys’ sound was that it was rather raw, even
slightly impish, but this made it colourful and very distinctive,
a welcome change from the carbon-copy uniformity that can characterise
some cathedral choirs. The great blocks of chords at the start
of movements, after plainsong introductions, ring here with
hypnotic strength. Lines of polyphony cascade over one another
in the great movements of the Gloria and Credo.
Moments of punctuation leaven the texture, such as the glorious
pause for reflection, almost like a drawing in of breath, at
Et incarnatus est, and the spiralling layers of the Sanctus
show the harmonic interplay of the choir at its best.
The motet sequence Planxit autem David, David’s lament
for Saul and Jonathan, is, if anything, even more beautiful,
seemingly endless vocal lines being spun out to reflect the
king’s grief. Pages of minor key vocal melisma seem to go on
for ever before resolving magically into the major.
The cycle Vultum tuum deprecabuntur consists of a series
of Motets dedicated to the Virgin Mary, and they are characterised
by a particular ethereal quality, as if levitating in mid-air,
unlike the more grounded Mass and Planxit. With this
set of performances the boys’ voices have lost their impishness
and take on a more conventionally angelic quality. This chimed
in with the beautiful, other-worldly nature of both text and
music and the cycle makes a roundly satisfying conclusion to
With performances of such distinction and quality, this disc
would make a first-rate introduction to Josquin’s music.