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Josquin - Missa Malheur me bat & Missa Fortuna desperata

This album, the fourth in our cycle of complete Josquin Masses, was nominated for a Grammy Award in 2010.


 Every time I hear music by Josquin (about 1440 to 1521) I feel carried out of normal time. An infinite room without boundaries appears which - paradoxical but true - leads to a more intense self-awareness. Beauty and peace combine with the typical sounds of Franco-Flemish vocal polyphony. The horrors of history seem to be immobilized by this peace, its beauty balanced in the highly mathematical art which is the essence of such writing.

This CD combines two of Josquin's most complex works. Both are so-called parody masses: in these two examples a chanson constitutes the starting point from which both settings are structured. The particularly impressive Agnus dei of the Missa Malheur me bat, with a four- and a two-voice section, followed by a six-voice section at the end, shows how resourcefully a composer can work with the same text, over and over again.

The interpretation by The Tallis Scholars, directed by Peter Phillips, is perfect. The balanced and homogeneous but still vivid and present sound, which melts the voices to a unit, is deeply impressive. Expression here, unlike in later music, is not caused by verbal declamation, but by an even flow of entwining musical lines. This constantly leads to magical and almost supernatural effects. The more one listens to this music, the more dimensions open up. However one should remember that originally  these movements were not written to be sung continuously, as in a symphony, but as an integrated part of the mass ritual.

Translation: Gimell

Uwe Schweikert

Stuttgarter Zeitung, 25 August 2009

Diapason d'Or

The Missa Malheur me bat is a major masterpiece in the history of music. We said this before when commenting on the recording of it by the Clerk's Group, which was meticulous but far from capturing the whole picture (cf no. 503). The Tallis Scholars, whose recent return to recording Josquin made such a strong impression (the canonic masses, Diapason découverte, cf. no. 557) have made here one of the most beautiful discs ever recorded of Renaissance vocal polyphony, reaching not only summits of technical perfection (beauty and tuning of the lines, richness of harmonic cohesion) but also of expressive tension and commitment.

In such an interpretation this mass of forty minutes' duration will offer much to ravish the ears for many years to come, such is the resourcefulness of its part-writing (as may be heard in the overlapping of the motifs, the blocks of declamation in the Credo, the sinuous Sanctus with its unending phrases, the lively Hosanna alternating duple and triple times, mind-blowing duets, the whole structure resting on a very beautiful chanson in the phrygian mode). In the third Agnus for six voices, which is at least as attractive as its more famous cousin in the Missa L'Homme arme Sexti Toni, the expressive force of what this ensemble and their conductor draw out of Josquin's sweeping progressions takes one's breath away.

By comparison with this summit of intensity, the debut of the Missa Fortuna desperata makes a striking contrast by its very simplicity. The ease and charm of this probably early and unpretentious work (at least by comparison with Malheur me bat) makes for an excellent balance to the disc as a whole.

Twenty years after his first Josquin recordings, Peter Phillips still has the same interpretative mannerisms (speedings up at Quoniam to solus in the Gloria and at Et resurrexit in the Credo). Recently it has been one or two other English groups which were formed in the 1990s (particularly the Clerks' Group and the Binchois Consort) which have called the shots in this repertoire, but the choral artistry and sheer expressivity of the Tallis Scholars has always guaranteed that they would be one step ahead of the field. There are still eight Josquin masses for them to record, amongst which are some of his most challenging works.

Translation: Gimell

David Fiala

Diapason, 31 May 2009

Artistic Quality 10
Sound Quality 10

The Tallis Scholars' previous Josquin recordings have justly garnered wide acclaim--and even a couple of prestigious awards--and here's another one worthy to join that company.

Both of these works, based on secular polyphonic chansons and accurately described by conductor Peter Phillips as "two of the finest to come from any pen," sport formidable Agnus Dei movements that could stand alone as ideal representations of Josquin's most ingeniously complex compositional style. They are also irresistibly affecting, leaving the listener with unmitigated confirmation of their creator's complete mastery of his craft as well as his uncommon sensitivity to the Mass' spiritual import. The Agnus Dei of the Missa Fortuna desperata, with its rich-textured scoring for lower voices (no superius part), makes a soul-stirring impression that demands repeated hearing.

As we expect by now, the Tallis Scholars offer first-class ensemble-work (informed by uncompromising scholarship) in characteristically ingratiating performances that always leave us satisfied that we've just heard the most exacting and sincerely "authentic" rendition possible by modern singers--and given that neither of these Masses has been oft-recorded, here we have the additional assurance of near-exclusivity. When you hear this music you are transported: there is no modern equivalent to the soaring melodic lines, the complex polyphonic textures, or to the music's deeply entwined, signature religious character. This is music that moves listeners on the same deeply spiritual level as Bach's greatest works, and it certainly deserves to be heard more widely (if only there were readily available performing editions!). The sound, from one of this group's favored venues--the Chapel of Merton College, Oxford--is just perfect. Don't hesitate.

David Vernier

The reputation of The Tallis Scholars under Peter Phillips in this repertoire, Renaissance choral polyphony, is so well established that it hardly needs a gloss. Formed in 1973 and usually performing two to a part, the specialist ensemble has an approach that usually suggests a purity and integrity of sound. They aim for a cleanliness of line and texture and for penetration to the words through focused, uncluttered articulation of the music. Yet this style has not won universal praise; by some it's seen as too anodyne.

It's thus important to guard at best against sameness; at worst against sterility. Three aspects of the ensemble's work stop these charges from sticking, and are evident in this excellent CD: the continuing interests of members of the group in scholarly research; their determination to explore dissimilarities across the music of the composers they perform as closely as similarities; and the repertoire itself. If its spirit is fully entered into, the music of Josquin exudes its own vitality. That's definitely the case here. Joy, wisdom, temperance and exultation are all in evidence.

Phillips' essay in the accompanying booklet (which also has the Latin, English, French and German texts) may give us a clue to something in the present recording which has afforded it such life. He alludes to the current fashion of comparing Josquin to Beethoven. Of seeing the former also as a hugely influential composer promoting immense changes in the way music was conceived and performed. And of the production of an easily-knowable corpus of profound masterpieces. Specifically, each of Josquin's 16 or so authenticated masses touches on a different area of (human and/or divine) experience; and stands in its own right for so doing.

The two masses here presented are works of real wonder, are typical of Josquin at the height of his powers, and are sung with a spirit, a flare and an engagement that make this recording one to rush out and buy.

As is common for this kind of composition, each mass has as its model a secular polyphonic song. Malheur me bat, once thought to be by Ockeghem is actually by an obscure Flemish composer, Malcort; while Fortuna desperata (thought to be the earlier) is by Antoine Busnoys. What was not so common was Josquin's recourse to all three voices of each song for the material on which to base his masses. These masses, then, are in the tradition of the later 'Parody masses' of Josquin, his contemporaries and successors. And indeed there is a freshness, a sense of experiment - of adventure, almost - in the singing of The Tallis Scholars... listen to the turns and twists of the Credo in the Missa Malheur me bat [tr.3], for example.

It's in the Credo of the Missa Fortuna desperata [tr.8] that one has a good opportunity to hear the melody of the chanson; given the intricacy of the reworking of the melodies' substance, such obscurity is unlikely to yield its secrets without a score. Much of the basis is mathematical.

For many listeners, though, this will scarcely matter. We have an outstandingly beautiful sound, polished, without being perfected, by Phillips and the Scholars, and the success of which derives from intimate knowledge of the conventions, practices and deviations thereof, not to mention the place in history which such developments took. They also have the necessary musicianship to negotiate all such complexities. Even these skills would not be enough if such insight resulted only in a mechanical exposition of the relationship of chanson to mass, or a completely empirical rendering of the gorgeous textures of the latter.

Instead what Phillips and The Tallis Scholars have achieved on this CD, it's tempting to say, is nod in the direction of the suggestion that Josquin strove for a through-composed work of what we could now call symphonic proportions. Phillips also clearly believes that it's also through attention to structure - again in a symphonic context - that the music works. Even if subconsciously.

The components - in this case chanson, paraphrase and the Ordinary - combine into something both ethereal and of great power; both pleasing and challenging to the ear. It needs singers like these to make the amalgam. The Tallis Scholars - supported by Gimell's usual high production standards - have succeeded.
Read the full review on Musicweb International.

Mark Sealey

Josquin's 16 authenticated mass settings stand as a landmark among music of any age. Formidably complex yet piously crafted and emotionally resonant, these works have really yet to be equaled by any composer since then. Peter Phillips and the always-reliable Tallis Scholars now present us with two of the most intriguing and intricate works of Josquin's series, the parody masses "Malheur me bat" and "Fortuna desperata". Both of these works take their origins from secular polyphonic chansons as their model, but this time with a bit of a twist.

Usually a composer when borrowing from such a source would make use of only one part of the song, perhaps a tenor line, and create all of the motives from the mass using this one source. In these works, he used all three parts of the original song as material in the mass, creating all sorts of possibilities making for infinite density and intricacy in how he modeled these pieces. In doing this he essentially fashioned the art of the polyphonic parody mass, and one can indeed hear the complexity of the pieces if not quite the structural elements, except in small cases and only when one knows the melodies and is able to zero in on them. As a result of this astonishing compositional ability, the progress of these masses provides us with lush textures and a bewildering variety of technical accomplishments, all kept in proper proportion by the composer's uncanny facility in making each contrapuntal line clear and pristine as new-cut glass.

The Scholars are on first-rate form here (when are they not?), and Gimell's production values are as first-class as they have been for 30 years. If you are youngish or new to this music, I can't think of a better place to dive in - everyone needs a certain amount of Josquin in their musical diet.
Reproduced from Audiophile Audition.

Steven Ritter

Audiophile Audition, 25 March 2009

Following the lines of the Renaissance master Josquin des Prés is like following Alice's white rabbit into wonderland. Adventurous harmonies pour forth, though the calm radiance of Peter Phillips's singers always soothes the temples in these two Masses spun from secular songs.

Missa Malheur me bat, featured by the Scholars at last year's Proms, is the more intricate, while Missa Fortuna desperata, simpler in design, reaches more of the heart. The recording is warm and enveloping.


Geoff Brown

The Times, 7 March 2009

Both of these works are parody Masses, taking material from pre-existing chansons then using it to create magnificent but deeply moving structures. Each movement is a tour de force. This is the kind of music that challenges the alert ear to explore its micro-connections, its quotations and its brilliant canons, but its appeal is more universal than that. Peter Phillips directs the Tallis Scholars in carefully paced readings that mix pristine clarity with warmth, intimacy and depth.

Stephen Pettitt

Sunday Times, 1 Feb 2009

Around 16 mass settings that can safely be attributed to Josquin survive intact, so the Tallis Scholars' project to record them all has now reached the half-way point. This fourth release brings together two, Missa Malheur Me Bat and Missa Fortuna Desperata, that both use secular polyphonic songs as their models, deriving their thematic material from them. The processes involved are immensely complicated, with not a morsel wasted, and the emotional and intellectual power of this music stems from that rigour, and Josquin's ability to use it to entirely personal ends. As the director of the Tallis Scholars Peter Phillips points out in his typically stimulating sleeve notes, these masses were never intended to be heard as a single experience like a classical symphony. The constituent parts would have been sung at the relevant moments in the liturgy, but because of the sheer sophistication of their organisation the sense of coherence would have been maintained. Heard as a single span, they make an even more overwhelming impression, and these performances, scrupulously prepared by Phillips and recorded with great clarity and immediacy, are totally engrossing.

Andrew Clements

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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