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Josquin des PRÉS (c 1440-1521)
Missa Hercules Dux Ferrarie [27:29]
Missa D’ung aultre amer [17:52]
Missa Faysant regretz [26:18]
The Tallis Scholars / Peter Phillips
rec. Chapel of Merton College, Oxford. DDD.
Sung texts and English, French & German translations included GIMELL CDGIM 051 [71:40]
All good things must come to an end, they say, and with this release Peter Phillips and The Tallis Scholars bring to an end their nine-disc survey of all the Mass settings by Josquin des Prés. They’ve recorded all 18 of the masses, plus the Missa Da pacem, long attributed to Josquin but now accepted as the work of Noel Bauldeweyn. It’s been a long project; the survey began as long ago as 1986 with the coupling of Missa Pange Lingua and Missa La sol fa re mi, a recording which in 1987 famously became the first early music disc to win Gramophone magazine’s Record of the Year accolade. Now, thirty-four years later, in 2020, we have the final volume, just in time to complete the project before the 500th anniversary in 2021 of Josquin’s death. As Peter Phillips observes in his booklet essay, he didn’t start out with the intention of recording all the Josquin masses, but he came to realise that “my principle that every album should stand on its own as an eye-catching event would still be respected , simply because Josquin refused to do the same thing twice….I realised that every album could indeed be an event, and that the complete set – if ever we managed to finish it – would be a major event.”
Reviewing the release in its download form, Brian Wilson neatly summed up the dilemma both of he and I faced as this new album arrived. I think I’m right in saying that both of us have reviewed all the previous discs in this series and, as he says, “we seem to have used up all the superlatives even by the time that we each reviewed CDGIM048 in 2016.” Well, I like a challenge, so let’s see what there is to say about this final disc in the series.
All three masses on this disc are in four parts (SATB) with the exception that Agnus Dei III of Missa Hercules Dux Ferrarie expands to SSATBB. As is the custom of the Tallis Scholars, two voices are allotted to each part although Peter Philip adds an extra soprano voice throughout the programme and there’s also an additional alto in the aforementioned Agnus Dei III.
Missa Hercules Dux Ferrarie was composed for Ercole I d’Este of Ferrara (1431-1505) who was Duke of Ferrara from 1471 until his death. His portrait is on the booklet cover. Peter Philips thinks that the Mass may well date from 1503/04, when Josquin was working at the ducal court. In writing it, Josquin flattered the duke by basing it on an eight-note theme which translated the name Hercules into music. This figure is, apparently, repeated 47 times during the setting, mainly by the tenors.
Listening to this recording, I was struck first by how full of verve and energy is the Kyrie II, a comment that applies both to the music and to The Tallis Scholars’ performance. The setting of the Gloria is quite brief, playing for just 3:58. However, Josquin packs a lot of inventive counterpoint into this short timespan. Towards the end, from ‘Cum Sancto Spiritu’, the tone is celebratory. In the fine setting of the Credo, the passage that especially stood out for me was the concluding section, ‘Et in Spiritum Sanctum’. Here, it’s noticeable that even on the occasions where Josquin brings the texture down to two parts the music is still exultant. Mind you, that’s also a tribute to these singers who, here and throughout the disc, make the music fairly leap off the page. The start of the Sanctus is devotional, even mysterious. Later, the music to which the Hosanna is set is quick and joyful. The Benedictus is consistently in two parts: A and T, followed by T and B, and then S and T. The sophisticated simplicity of the music is disarming and the movement is very beautiful, especially when sung as expertly as here. The Agnus Dei is, I think, the outstanding part of this Mass. Agnus Dei I is grave and meditative; Agnus Dei II dispenses with the tenor part and Peter Philips, using just one voice per part, I think, causes the music to flow a little more than in Agnus Dei I, to excellent effect. Finally, in Agnus Dei III the writing expands to SSATBB. In this slow-moving section we have nearly three minutes of rich, complex and expressive polyphony. Missa Hercules Dux Ferrarie is a wonderful setting and, as befits a Mass setting for a nobleman, the writing is often rich and always of the highest quality.
Peter Philips describes Missa D’ung aultre amer as “another odd-ball in Josquin’s Mass corpus”. It’s considerably shorter than the other two settings on this disc and very often the writing is extremely concise. Philips thinks that the compositional style comes from the Ambrosian rite of Milan – Josquin worked in the city during the 1480s – under which dispensation it was common for the Benedictus to be replaced by a motet. Here, the chosen motet is Josquin’s setting of Tu solus qui facis mirabilis (You alone who do wondrous things). The fourth of the motet’s five stanzas begins with the lines ‘D’ung aultre amer / Nobis esset fallacia’ (To love another / would be for us falsehood). Not only does the motet fit very well in the place accorded to it in this Mass setting, but its selection in this context is wholly appropriate. As Peter Philips points out, “behind much of the detail in the rest of the setting is the chanson D’ung aultre amer by Ockeghem”; this setting of the Mass was a tribute by Josquin to Ockeghem.
The Mass is very concise – the Gloria lasts for just 1:58 in this performance – and the music is built on short phrases, especially in the Gloria and Credo. Peter Philips draws our attention to the fact that in these two movements Josquin achieves concision by overlapping lines of the text in the various vocal part. Does this count as textural polyphony as well as musical polyphony? Just because the music is succinct doesn’t mean that the quality is poor, though; far from it. The motet Tu solus qui facis mirabilis offers an interesting contrast. Here, polyphony is largely eschewed and the music is built on solemn chords. The design is simple but the piece is perfectly constructed.
As he did in Missa Hercules Dux Ferrarie, Josquin built Missa Faysant regretz round a short motif; in this case the notes FDED, which, astonishingly, is heard more than 200 times. The model for the Mass is a three-part rondeau, variously attributed to two composers. The Mass is another very fine composition. In the opening section of the Gloria, I admire the way in which Josquin’s vigorous polyphony moves the words forward with purpose at all times. The last section of the Credo, ‘Et in Spiritum Sanctum’ is made by Josquin into a confident and extrovert expression of faith and that’s exactly how it’s interpreted in this performance. Peter Philips draws attention to the ‘Amen’ as a particularly choice example of Josquin’s art; he’s right to do so because the music is spectacular, as is the performance. In the opening of the Sanctus my attention was grabbed by the lovely, circling vocal lines; the effect is airy and contemplative. By contrast, the Hosanna dances delightfully; The Tallis Scholars invest the rhythms with wonderful bounce. The Agnus Dei III is another ear-catcher. This extended movement contains wonderful music which provides a lovely end, not just to this Mass but also to this series of Josquin discs.
Throughout the three Mass settings the singing of The Tallis Scholars is flawless in every respect. Flawless too is Gimel’s presentation. Engineer Philip Hobbs is highly experienced in recording this ensemble in the wonderful acoustic of Merton College Chapel; his skills ensure that both the singers and the music are heard to the best possible advantage. Peter Philips’ notes distil great knowledge of the subject into a concise and very readable essay. There’s another important additional dimension to the presentation. Two of the Masses, Missa Hercules Dux Ferrarie and Missa Faysant regretz are sung in editions specially prepared for Gimell by Timothy Symons. If you go to the label’s website and search for this disc you will find pdf scores of both pieces available for free download.
So, with this distinguished disc we reach the end of this exploration of the Masses by Josquin. It’s taken 34 years to complete but I think there’s a great deal to be said for the way the series has evolved over time and as just one element, albeit a very important one, in the discography that The Tallis Scholars have built over the years. It has been a highly rewarding series to follow. Peter Philips concludes his booklet essay by saying that this Josquin project “has defined the career of The Tallis Scholars”. The completed project will surely stand as a hugely important contribution to the discography of Renaissance polyphony.
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