In the grammar of Ornament (London: Quaritch; 1856) the architect Owen Jones, following ancient practice, said that 'Those proprotions will be the most beautiful which it will be the most difficult for the eye to detect.' The Tallis Scholars' director Peter Phillips, apropos the use of canon in music, touches on a similar point in the booklet notes accompanying the ensemble's latest release: 'The listener will always have the apprehension, however vague, of a presence in the music which complicates and intensifies. It is quite possible that you will never get to the bottom of why a canonic Mass fascinates you, yet it is not necessary to analyse everything to enjoy it.'
Of course the last statement is true of most music, but it is especially true of the work of a master of polyphony such as Josquin. This disc gives the listener the opportunity to sample the use of canon (a technique whereby two or more voices repeat the same melody at different pitches and at different times, overlapping to form a generally euphonious whole) at its most rigorous and most subtle. The Tallis Scholars, with their crystalline clarity and superb intonation, are ideal interpreters of this at times impossibly complex music. Both Masses are sung two-to-a-part.
These are the only Masses by Josquin to be based entirely on canons. The Missa Ad fugam is a relatively early work; the Missa Sine nomine comes from late in Josquin's career. The latter is presented on this recording first, and is indeed a pleasure to listen to, irrespective of the ability of the listener to pick up on all the various musical devices being used. The textures are for the most part sparse, the delicate shifts of mood that permeate each of the sections very effective within what is a limited emotional framework - this is especially true of the 'Gloria' and 'Credo'. The Tallis Scholars are equally refined in their performance: the 'Kyrie' is made to sound eerily hypnotic; the 'Credo' has a special dignity and the initially chilly 'Agnus Dei' thaws to a warm aural glow.
The earlier Missa Ad fugam is indeed a little easier to follow, each of the movements beginning with the canon in writing that is generously transparent. The writing is also very reminiscent of Josquin's teacher Ockeghem's, thus providing a stylistic counterpoint to the latter work. Here, The Tallis Scholars again prove to be trustworthy guides through Josquin's labyrinthine musical world, the difference being that their sound here is somehow richer and more resonant, perhaps to offset the strictness of the writing. Following this performance are parts of two movements from the same work in later revisions, perhaps by Josquin himself. Reconciling, as this does, the 'two Josquins' represented on this disc, it seems an ideal way with which to end it.
Reproduced with the kind permission of International Record Review.