The Tallis Scholars' continuing, if sporadic, series of Josquin
Masses has been a treat for fans of both the ensemble and the
composer. Like Tallis, Josquin is a composer prone to dryness
in performance. There are elegant textures and harmonies, but
there is always a risk that by concentrating on the complexities
of the counterpoint these moments of beauty will be passed by.
Not so here. The elegance of the sound is second to none. Yet
the choir is small and the performance practice - tempos, rubato,
tone - is as strict as any.
The two masses are very different works. Missa De beata virgine
was apparently the most popular of Josquin's masses during his
lifetime, which comes as a surprise, not so much for a lack
of quality as for a lack of coherence and identity. The separate
movements are each based on different, and musically unrelated,
Marian chants. While the Kyrie and Gloria are in four parts,
the rest of the mass is in five. The contrapuntal techniques
are also unusually complex, even for Josquin.
Missa Ave maris stella is more typical of the composer.
It is based on a single chant, and its textures are both simpler
and more varied in their density. If anything, the contrast
between the two works has the effect of highlighting the unusual
construction and sound of the former. But both are mature Josquin.
Stylistic features suggest Ave maris stella is the earlier
of the two, but both are up to the high standards of contrapuntal
flow and ingenuity for which he was rightly famous. Between
the two masses is the so-called Cambrai Credo. This is
quite an extrovert setting, with often dense contrapuntal textures.
But it bridges the stylistic gap between the two masses well.
It is as complex as the former, yet as accessible as the latter.
The Tallis Scholars sing two to a part, which sounds just about
ideal. The alto lines are taken by one female and one male singer,
which if anything adds richness to the sound rather making it
seem like a compromise. The long-running debate about singing
this music at the written pitch or a fourth higher seems to
have been settled conclusively in the case of De beata virgine
by the low tessitura of the music, especially in the Credo,
which requires transposition to be performable by anybody.
The acoustic of Merton College Chapel is surprisingly dry, but
not detrimentally so. The singers are able to generate sufficient
warmth through their combined tone colour not to require further
atmosphere from a resonant acoustic.
Josquin's music is well served on this recording, which is at
least as interesting and satisfying as any of the previous releases
in the series. De beata virgine is particularly interesting,
given its stylistic distance from the rest of the cycle, and
the curious fact that it was so popular in its day, despite
- or perhaps because of - its musical complexities.
Anybody with the technology and inclination to download this
or any of the Tallis Scholars' other recent releases may be
interested to know that they are available on the group's website
in a wide range of formats and file sizes. The largest is 24
bit, 96 kHz 5.1 surround. If the sound quality on this CD is
anything to go by, that high res version promises to be a very
satisfying listening experience indeed.
see also review by John