Peter Phillips and The Tallis Scholars are engaged on a project to record all of Josquin’s Masses. So far, I believe, they have committed ten of the settings to disc. This present disc includes two of their earliest Josquin Mass recordings.
In the Renaissance it was a pretty common practice for composers to base a Mass setting around a theme from, say, a motet. Even though the music was designed for liturgical use secular music was often the source of inspiration and perhaps no secular tune was more often used in this way than the chanson, L’homme armé
. Peter Phillips comments in his notes that at least thirty-one Mass settings were based on the tune, including these two by Josquin. And, of course, the melody has even been pressed into service in our own day by Karl Jenkins in his populist work, The Armed Man.
The earliest reliable source for the melody, Peter Phillips tells us, is a late-fifteenth-century manuscript and it’s possible that what we now take to be the melody may have been the tenor part for a three-voice chanson. Very helpfully, the melody is sung on this disc before we hear the Masses.
It’s not possible to date the composition of these works precisely but both were printed in 1502 and it is assumed that the more substantial setting, Super voces musicales
is the earlier of the two. Peter Phillips believes that it would be almost impossible to perform the Mass complete in concert due to its length and the tessitura of the vocal parts. I suppose, in a liturgical context the singers would get a rest between movements, though it would make for a very
The Mass is a very fine composition and it’s ingenious how the tune is almost always there in the background – except in the ‘pleni sunt coeli’ passage in the Sanctus, in the Benedictus and in the second Agnus Dei. Yet despite this the music never sounds fettered by its relationship to the tune nor by the compositional rules and disciplines to which Josquin adheres, as pointed out in Peter Phillips’ notes; this is no mere academic exercise. Josquin’s music is glorious and the listener is consistently delighted by the sheer richness of his invention and by the wonderful intricacy of the part writing. . The polyphony at ‘Qui tollis’ in the Gloria is very expressive while in the first section of the Credo the phrases are almost tossed about between the voices. In that same movement the ‘Et incarnatus’ (3:35) is very thoughtful before Josquin concludes the movement in extrovert style.
The Sanctus unfolds in a measured way and here is one of many cases where one is grateful for the exemplary control of line in this performance. In the Benedictus the calm and purity of Josquin’s writing, prior to the jubilant ’Hosanna’, is realised with consummate skill by The Tallis Scholars. Their account of the Agnus Dei is beautifully judged with all the parts perfectly weighted and balanced in relation to each other.
In the Sexti toni
Mass the L’homme armé
melody is harder to pick up – Josquin varies the way in which he interweaves it into the music with considerable subtlety. This setting, Peter Phillips suggests, is more like a “mature Renaissance” composition than the other Mass. It’s another deeply impressive work. One passage
that particularly stood out for me is the ‘Qui tollis’ in the Gloria. Here the music is tremendously reflective and calm. By contrast, the end of the Gloria, beginning at ‘Cum Sancto Spiritu’ is exuberant and rhythmically vital. The Agnus Dei is impressively spacious and in the third ‘Agnus’ Josquin expands the number of parts from four to six. In this rapt section the performance by The Tallis Scholars rises to new heights of excellence with just the right amount of expressive warmth.
The performances of both these Masses exhibit the usual fastidious musicianship that is always the hallmark of a Tallis Scholars recording. The balance and tuning are impeccable and it is hard to imagine that this music could be better performed. The performances were recording during the period when the group was using the Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in Salle, Norfolk as their recording venue. The engineers, Mike Clements and Mike Hatch, have captured the singing beautifully and very truthfully. This is a disc to savour.
The Tallis Scholars’ Josquin Mass series on MusicWeb International
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