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Josquin DES PRÉS (c.1440-1521)
Plainchant: Pange Lingua [3:36]
Missa Pange Lingua [29:25]
Missa La sol fa re mi [28:28]
The Tallis Scholars/Peter Phillips
rec. 1986, Chapel of Merton College, Oxford, UK. DDD
Latin texts and English, French, German, Italian translations included
GIMELL CDGIM009 [61:43]
 
Josquin DES PRÉS (c.1440-1521)
Missa Sine Nomine [27:39]
Missa Ad fugam [31:30]
Missa Ad fugam revisions attributed to Josquin
Sanctus, Benedictus [4:47]
Agnus Dei I, II, III [2:55]
The Tallis Scholars/Peter Phillips
rec. Church of St. Peter and St Paul, Salle, Norfolk. DDD
Latin texts and English, French, German translations included
GIMELL CDGIM039 [68:50]

Josquin DES PRÉS (c.1440-1521)
Missa Malheur me bat, [39:46] *
Missa Fortuna desperata [35:41] **
The Tallis Scholars/Peter Phillips
rec. 2008, Chapel of Merton College, Oxford, UK. DDD
Latin texts and English, French, German translations included
GIMELL CDGIM042 [75:27]

Peter Phillips founded The Tallis Scholars in 1973; they are celebrating their fortieth anniversary this year. That seems to be a suitable cue to bring up to date MusicWeb International’s coverage of the issues to date in the ensemble’s series of recordings of Masses by the Flemish master, Josquin Des Prés.
 
The three discs under consideration here include the disc that may be said to be one of the most important that The Tallis Scholars have issued to date. With CDGIM009 they won Gramophone magazine’s Record of the Year award in 1987. This was the first time that an early music disc had received that accolade and, amazingly, it remained the only such winner of that award until 2010, I believe. In terms of recognition for The Tallis Scholars this award was a quantum leap. As Peter Phillips said when I interviewed him and Steve Smith for Seen and Heard in 2010, “It turned us into a serious proposition”. One key thing, as he explained, was that the Gramophone award was not only from specialist critics but from a panel of critics that included writers who specialised in a wide variety of music; in other words, the quality of the music and the performances generated widespread, as opposed to specialist, appeal.
 
Listening to the disc it’s not hard to see why it was singled out. I came across a contemporary comment by John Steane, doyen of vocal music critics, which was reprinted in his book. The Gramophone and the Voice (1999). Steane wrote in 1987 that The Tallis Scholars “are a wonderfully homogenous and disciplined group, yet sound like a choir of human beings.” Of this particular disc Steane went on to say that “[they] bring such a perceptive ear for the rhythms that they awaken a new appreciation of the vitality and joy that exist in such things.” How true! The Missa La sol fa re mi is the earlier of the two Masses; it was published in 1502. Josquin based the entire Mass on the five notes A, G, F, D, E and Peter Phillips reckons that this cantus firmus appears over 200 times during the work. Yet, to my ears, while this is an amazing technical feat the music never sounds constrained by this self-imposed framework, still less dry or academic. The music doesn’t strike me as being as extrovert as that in the companion Mass on this disc but that’s an observation, not a criticism. In the Sanctus, Josquin almost goes up through the gears: the ‘Sanctus’ itself is slow-moving and gently majestic; the ‘Pleni sunt caeli’ music is lively but the ‘Hosanna’ is even livelier and exultant. I was struck in Agnus Dei I by how many times Josquin repeats just the one word ‘mundi’, as if emphasising again and again that Christ, the Lamb of God, has taken away the sins of everyone. The same repetition occurs in Agnus Dei III where the singing is exquisitely hushed and intense.
 
The compositional framework for Missa Pange Lingua is a paraphrase of the plainchant hymn for Corpus Christi. Helpfully, the complete hymn is sung first. Once again, I don’t feel that the framework acts as any kind of constraint on Josquin; the music just flows with a natural inevitability. This is held to be a much later Mass than its companion; it wasn’t published until 1539, long after Josquin’s death. Peter Phillips says in his notes that this Mass has been described by one scholar as ‘a fantasy on a plainsong’. What amazes me is the sheer variety, indeed flamboyance, of Josquin’s writing for just four parts. In fact, his invention is undiminished even when he reduces his options by writing in just two parts, as at the start of the Credo where first the tenors and basses are heard, followed by sopranos and altos. In the Credo the simple, reverent homophony at ‘Et incarnatus est’ is a masterstroke after we’ve heard so much polyphony. By “restricting” himself in this way Josquin focuses attention on the mystery of the Incarnation. After this compositional self-denial he compensates, as it were, with jubilant polyphony for ‘Et resurrexit’.
 
The performances of these two Masses are absolutely superb. The dedication, discipline and skill required to produce such immaculate singing is quite remarkable. Beautifully recorded by Mike Clements, it’s no surprise that this disc was acclaimed so widely. Even now, more than 25 years later, it still sounds fresh and new-minted.
 
CDGIM039 demonstrates a different side of Josquin’s compositional genius. Both of the Masses are based entirely on canons. As Peter Phillips points out, there are canonical movements elsewhere in Josquin’s output but to construct all five movements of a Mass setting in this way is infinitely more demanding. The comment I made above about the technical aspect not fettering the music in any way applies to these compositions also. If you listen very closely you’re always aware of the canonical device – the clarity and precision of the singing, as well as Josquin’s writing, sees to that – but it’s equally possible – and acceptable, I’d suggest – simply to surrender to the wonderful music without necessarily being aware that the musical scaffolding is invariably a canon.
 
Missa Ad fugam is probably the earlier of the two works; for one thing, Phillips says, the canonical writing is more rigid. That may be so but the music never sounds rigid, especially in the ringing performance that The Tallis Scholars give of the Gloria. The Credo is also very impressive. A manuscript source for the Mass in Jena University contains some revisions to the Sanctus and Agnus Dei movements. These revisions may even be by Josquin himself and they are included as an appendix to this recording.
 
Missa Sine Nomine may be a homage to Ockeghem, Peter Phillips suggests; he weaves into the ‘Et incarnatus’ a self-quotation from a lament that he wrote on the death of the earlier Flemish master. In the opening pages of the Credo the constantly overlapping parts are urgent and exciting in this performance and the listener really needs the repose of the ‘Et incarnatus’ section. However, once these moments of recollection are passed Josquin really gets into his stride again and the closing moments of the Credo are truly exhilarating; who says canons are dull? The Sanctus is divided into the customary three sections – ‘Sanctus’, ‘Pleni’ and ‘Hosanna’ – which gives Josquin a further opportunity to display his technical skill by composing three different types of canon in one movement.
 
CDGIM042 has been reviewed previously by Mark Sealey and Brian Wilson. Notwithstanding the excellence of the music - and performances - on the other two discs this is the one on which the music most impressed and excited me. Several of Josquin’s Masses, including Missa Pange Lingua and both of his Masses based on L’homme armé (review), are based on paraphrases of tunes found in liturgical or sacred music. These two Masses are paraphrases of three-part chansons but, astonishingly, Josquin used all three parts of the chansons as the basis for his composition. That’s a remarkably ingenious thing to do and requires hitherto unprecedented compositional skill. As Peter Phillips says, without a score the listener is unlikely to be able to spot all the references in the pieces and even with the score it’s hard to pick up some things.
 
Missa Fortuna desperata (‘Desperate Fate’) is based on a chanson attributed to Antoine Busnoys (c. 1430-1492) and is probably the earlier of these two Masses. Unlike all the other Masses considered here it is scored not for SATB but for ATTB. That scoring gives the music a richer, slightly darker hue as, for instance, in the ‘Qui tollis’ section of the Gloria where the colours suggested are gold and russet. There’s a seemingly endless flow of polyphony in the highly impressive Credo. Part of the Agnus Dei may be missing: it’s not in the usual tripartite form and perhaps a central section in two parts has been lost. The music in the Agnus is underpinned by unusually sustained bass notes – Peter Phillips adds a third bass singer to his ensemble for this movement – and that gives this slow-moving music a stately feel. The second Agnus Dei has a special solemnity to it, emphasised by the prominence of lower voices in Josquin’s textures.
 
Missa Malheur me bat (‘Misfortune has struck me’) is based on a chanson of that name which had been thought to be by Ockeghem but, Peter Phillips says, may be by an obscure Flemish composer, Malcort. Josquin’s Mass is on an impressive scale, lasting nearly 40 minutes in this performance and, though it’s scored for SATB, in the Agnus the parts expand to SAATBB. For this performance Peter Phillips augments the Superius line with an additional female singer. The whole Mass is tremendously impressive but I must single out the magnificent setting of the Credo as it made a particularly strong impression on me. Here the music is exciting and expressive. The thrilling, urgent performance by The Tallis Scholars really brings Josquin’s music to life. The Sanctus begins as a slow-moving, elaborate musical edifice but then there’s an outburst of sheer energy at ‘Hosanna’, although the singing remains as controlled and disciplined as ever. The extra parts bestow an additional richness of texture to the Agnus Dei. This is intense, gravely beautiful music and Peter Phillips reveals its full stature in directing an expansive, unhurried performance.
 
These three outstanding discs show us different examples of some of the compositional techniques that Josquin had in his armoury. Thereby they also demonstrate different facets of his genius. From start to finish of each disc the performance standards are amazingly high. Furthermore, though the performances are obviously grounded in scholarship that scholarship is worn lightly: these performances are exciting, compelling and often moving. It might be objected by some that the performances are too perfect. If I may refer back to my interview with Peter Phillips and Steve Smith, I recall that the subject of painstaking perfection in Tallis Scholars recordings came up and they made no apology for a constant search for perfection in recordings, which they regard, rightly, I’m sure, as documents. Small errors can occur in concerts but one doesn’t want them on a recording which a listener will replay often and which may be the only recording that anyone will make of a particular piece. Suffice to say that anyone buying these discs will find a realisation of the music that is technically perfect. Let it not be thought that this is sterile perfection. I return to John Steane: on these three discs you will hear musical perfection attained by “a choir of human beings.”
 
It remains only to be said that all three discs are excellently and thoroughly documented and that the standard of recorded sound is consistently splendid. There are, I believe, sixteen Masses by Josquin of which The Tallis Scholars have so far recorded ten. I do hope they will go on to record the remaining settings by this remarkable Flemish composer.
 
John Quinn
 
The Tallis Scholars Josquin Mass series on MusicWeb International
 
Missa Malheur me bat & Missa Fortuna desperata CD review download review
Missa De beata virgine & Missa Ave maris stella review review
Missa L’homme armé super voces musicales & Missa L’homme armé sexti toni review

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