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Josquin - Missa Sine nomine & Missa Ad fugam

This recording presents the only two Masses by Josquin which are entirely based on canons.


With their faultless intonation, transparency of line, and ideal balance between emotional intensity and cool intellectuality, the Tallis Scholars are unrivalled in this repertoire. Peter Phillips highlights the individuality of the different voice-parts - making their individuality comprehensible - yet forms a homogeneous overall sound. By comparing the early Missa Ad fugam and the later Missa Sine Nomine Josquin's stylistic development becomes clear: the thick sound-world of the early work, with its melismatic long-drawn-out lines, yields to a much tauter style, full of rhythmic contrasts without forfeiting any complexity.

Fascinating music, which immediately opens up to the listener even if he knows nothing of the polyphonic artifice which Josquin has deployed.

Translated from a review in the German magazine Partituren.

Uwe Schweikert

Partituren, 18 October 2008

Complex mathematical concepts were at the core of church music through much of the medieval and Renaissance eras. Indeed, in educated circles, music was considered to be a mere branch of mathematics up until the second half of the 15th century. Although the rise of Renaissance humanism elevated musical composition to one of the most powerful mediums of human expression, the long-standing infatuation with intricate "mathematical scaffolding" has remained with composers throughout Western history.

Josquin des Pres belonged to a generation of 15th-century church composers who tried to reconcile the highly mathematical polyphony of the immediate past with newly emerging trends that favored simpler musical texture. This is perhaps the reason why the great composer has only two surviving masses that are solely based on canons (using "canons" was one of the favorite compositional devices of his predecessors). The Tallis Scholars present us with both of des Pres' canonic masses: Missa Sine nomine and Missa Ad fugam. Based on newly invented material, these works truly are examples of Renaissance church music at its best and the ensemble brings them to life with due artistry. The success of the vocal lineup featured on this recording partially lies in the very distinctive vocal timbres of the individual singers; these give a clear character to each line of the musical texture. The ensemble as a whole treats us to singing of the highest caliber, with flawless intonation, crystal-clear voicing and a remarkable balance between emotional expressivity and cool intellectualism, making this a recording to cherish. Highly recommended!

Reproduced with the kind permission of Goldberg Magazine. Goldberg Magazine 5 stars

Zak Ozmo

Goldberg, 1 June 2008

It is becoming almost impossible to objectively review a Tallis Scholars recording. I have become so spoiled by the effortless tonal production of this ensemble, the high production values, and the scholarly approach to the music at hand, time and time again, that it is easy to simply take them for granted and give a rubber-stamp approval. And that is exactly what I am going to do here. If you know this group (and what collector doesn't?) then you know what to expect; indeed, have a right to expect, and Peter Phillips and company delivery in the same consistent, highly professional manner that they always do.

This CD tackles the only two extant masses of Josquin (1440-1521) that are completely based on the canon. This particular musical form involves the stating of a melody only to have it come in a number of bars later so that the second entrance effectively harmonizes with the first statement. This can be a bear to compose, and the musicians of his day would have to prove themselves in this technique in order to demonstrate their mastery of the craft. It requires a mind not unlike that needed to successfully navigate a game of high order chess; one must be constantly thinking ahead. Josquin could do this very well of course, and these two works show his formidable talent to great effect, so that in most cases one would not be aware of the technical proficiency behind the composition.

As an added bonus we get one of the few examples of an actual reworking from this period of the Sanctus, Benedictus, and Agnus Dei - interesting but not essential, yet Phillip's sense of thoroughness and completeness will have it no other way. Sound, as usual, is first-rate.


Steven Ritter

Audiophile Audition, 11 May 2008

It is a remarkable acheivement that 35 years after its founding The Tallis Scholars should still be a leader in the field of Renaissance polyphony. Styles of vocal performance come and go but the group remains the quintessential expression of the English approach to early vocal music, with its emphasis on clarity and exemplary intonation and ensemble. In its latest offering Peter Phillips and his singers explore two interesting Masses of the flemish master Josquin des Pres (c. 1440-1521). These works are Josquin's only masses based entirely on the technique of canon, where a melody is presented in successive voice parts in an overlapping fashion. (A round is a simple sort of canon.)

In true Renaissance fashion, Josquin allows art to conceal art, and his canonic writing is not immediately discernible by the listener. This has no effect on enjoying the music, which is full of interesting textures. The Missa Sine Nomine comes from the end of Josquin's life and is a very polished setting of the Mass, while the Missa Ad fugam is believed to be an early attempt possibly reworked by the composer. (Alternative versions of the Sanctus and Agnus Dei are included for comparison.) The elegant objective style of The Tallis Scholars is the perfect way to experience this fascinating music.


Tony Way

The Age, Melbourne, 8 May 2008

Josquin des Prés (c.1440-1521) wrote only two masses that were based entirely on canon (the same melody overlaps by beginning in successive parts). They are sumptuously performed on this disk by The Tallis Scholars. It's amazingly beautiful music expertly sung, and can be recommended without reservation to anyone who loves early Renaissance polyphony in particular. And especially to the collector of this remarkable - and prolific - composer's works. The Tallis Scholars' style is the usual polished, gleaming one. Too "perfect", perhaps, for some; yet here not a performance that lacks life or cheer; especially given the mathematically precise nature of the Masses' construction.

... it's this sense of the extra which so enhances what's to be heard on this CD - thanks to the singers' superb understanding of these threads as they run through these sublime compositions of Josquin's. Rather than submerging us, the music is consistently misty: not amorphous but fluid. It's not necessary to know that mist is composed of water droplets. Yet Phillips and the Tallis Scholars do know this. And such refinement refreshes anyone who would wash away the dust. Now almost 35 years old, the Tallis Scholars (with eight voices here) have managed to open this music - successfully and unhesitatingly. Buy this wonderful CD!


Mark Sealey

Josquin's only two masses based entirely on canons make an obvious coupling, yet they apparently date from the opposite ends of his composing career. In fact, as Peter Phillips suggests in his fascinating sleeve notes, the Missa Sine Nomine may have been composed as a companion piece to the earlier Missa Ad Fugam, just so that Josquin could demonstrate how much more accomplished his canonic writing had become in his later career, and how his mastery at the end of his life was more than a match for that of his teacher, Johannes Ockeghem. In the Missa Ad Fugam, the canonic writing is always between the top part and the third, with the two lines always a fifth apart, though the distance between the successive entities varies from movement to movement. In the Sine Nomine, the canonic writing is far freer, with individual lines forming and re-forming connections with others as the work goes on. It's intricate but fascinating to unravel, and both masses are gravely beautiful pieces, unfolded with wonderful clarity and purity of tone by Phillips's eight-voice choir.

Reproduced from The Guardian

Andrew Clements

The Tallis Scholars's latest offering reveals a variety of colour that would be arresting under any circumstance but is doubly so given that the early "Missa Ad fugam" and late "Missa Sine Nomine" are based on canons. "Ad fugam" is an extrovert work, almost dance-like in its ceremonial brightness - an element emphasised in the group's weird but wonderful blend of low mezzo and high tenor on the altus line - yet concluding with an extended "Agnus Dei" of rapt seriousness. "Sine Nomine" is dark and desolate - a melancholy valediction in which the stern sopranos and basses corall the flighty tenors.

Anna Picard

The Independent on Sunday, 13 April 2008

Artistic Quality - 10 / 10
Sound Quality  - 10 / 10

For more than 25 years Peter Phillips and his Tallis Scholars have shown how scrupulous dedication to a specialty (Renaissance vocal music), uncompromising performance standards, and control of the creative process--from research to performing editions to the recordings themselves (via the Gimell label)--can result in consistently first-rate productions that continue to stand as unsurpassed (in some cases unrivaled) contributions to the larger and very distinguished Renaissance music catalog.

Of course much of this success--given that we're talking about a cappella singing here--is due to the particular singers, not only in terms of technique but also regarding the quality of the voices and their effect in the context of the ensemble. The Tallis Scholars always has had a unique sound, a vibrant, multi-faceted resonance in which we hear not only the sum but the individual contributing parts as well. While we notice individual vocal timbres (no "super-blend" here!), the key is that they are not incompatible, such that we clearly hear interior lines while appreciating the unusually powerful effect when these variously-colored voices combine at chordal climaxes and cadence points.

All of which leads to the point that the vocal lineups here are among the best, most agreeably chosen of all of the Tallis Scholars recordings, especially concerning the upper parts--soprano (superius), alto, and tenor. There are a few Tallis Scholars recordings where the soprano voices become a little penetrating and prominently bright; but there's absolutely no trace of that here. The balances are superb--and the crucial bass support, provided by veterans Francis Steele and Donald Greig, is as solid and richly resonant as ever.

The two masses featured here are not only new to the CD catalog (another common aspect of Tallis Scholars programming), but they also represent "the only two Masses by Josquin that are entirely based on canons." Although this element of Josquin's compositional structure isn't necessarily easy to follow on a recording, the above-mentioned distinctiveness of vocal parts certainly makes it easier to recognize, especially in the more straightforward layout of the Missa Ad fugam, where the canonic theme is repeated in each movement.

Tallis Scholars fans will need no encouragement--or even a review--to convince them of the worthiness of this new recording, the third in a projected cycle of complete Josquin masses; but anyone who doesn't yet know this group would do well to start here. Josquin's music certainly rewards repeated listening, but it particularly shines when performed by such experienced, authoritative singers who've made a career not only performing this repertoire, but taking the time and committing the effort to get it right.

Reproduced with the kind permission of

David Vernier

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.

Robert Levett

International Record Review, 1 March 2008

The Tallis Scholars are arguably the best choir ever to record the repertoire of the fifteenth and sixteenth century. They come from a long tradition of excellent English choirs, the background to which is formed by the choral foundations of Oxford, Cambridge, and the English cathedrals, which support choirs of men and boys. Professional ensembles that developed in the 1960s and 1970s replaced the boys with falsettists, while the Tallis Scholars took the step of using women on the top lines instead of men or boys. The result is a choir whose tuning, ensemble, and general presentation are nearly flawless, and whose recordings are widely perceived as definitive. The praise is justified, but with the idea of definitive recordings lies a danger ...

Reproduced from The Josquin Companion, page 633, published by Oxford University Press.

Peter Urquhart

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