Josquin - Missa De beata virgine and Missa Ave maris stella
This recording won a Diapason d'Or de l'année Award in 2012.
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The Tallis Scholars give of their very best in this programme. Their singing is technically perfect, absolutely pure and extremely refined, indeed almost celestial. By using a choir of mixed voices which are so well balanced, Peter Phillips is able to bring to light inflections of sound which are not available to ensembles formed only of male voices. With the sensitivity of a British orchestral conductor, and thanks to his assured control of the music's architecture, his interpretations are a marvel of spirituality and concentration. These recordings quite simply form a contemporary reference-point to this repertoire, which will surely prove indispensible to every lover of early music. And the wonderful sound recording makes the listening experience all the more enjoyable.
The Tallis Scholars are hands down the most difficult performing ensemble in the world to review. The reason is simple - they have been around for so many years and have produced such a consistent and high quality product, both on record and in the concert hall, that there is simply little to say about them anymore except "bring it on!"
Both of these canonic masses are based on plainchant themes, and De beate virgine is most likely Josquin's most-performed mass, indeed probably the most-performed mass in the entire Renaissance period, with fully 69 disseminations, making it the most widely propagated work of its time. But the work is not a model of thematic unity, using different themes according to the different movements and becoming a slave to the liturgical texts. But the canons used are some of the most inventive he ever penned.
To the contrary, Ave maris stella presents the chant melody in a beautiful showcase, always easily understood and clearly discernible, with its eminent cohesion making it an easy choice for modern choirs.
The Chapel at Merton College in Oxford provides fine acoustics for the many felicities of the Tallis Scholars' stirring renditions - add another winner to the Gimell catalog.
I began listening to this CD with Pavlovian anticipation, being familiar with other recordings of Josquin by the Tallis Scholars. Just as in their recordings of Missa Pange Lingua, Missa La Sol Fa Re Mi (both on CDGIM 009), and the L'homme arme masses (CDGIM 019), this excellent ensemble brings a pristine and expressive clarity to these Marian canonic masses. Missa De Beata Virgine was the most widely printed work of Josquin des Prez (c 1450/1455-1521), and its prominence reflects its extraordinary quality.
Like J.S. Bach's Mass in B Minor, it seems to have been cobbled together out of an earlier four-voice Kyrie and Gloria and later five-voice movements. Also like Bach's masterpiece, this work represents a panoply of compositional approaches. Josquin's ability to tease out expressive qestures from a plainchant is evident through his use of paraphrase (or embellishment), and he contrasts the obsessive motivic play of the Kyrie with the vigorous, tonally confident "Hosanna" in the sanctus. What in manuscript appears disjointed becomes, by the craft of a master, a unified musical experience. The earlier Ave Maris Stella holds up exceedingly well against the later mass, proving Josquin to be one of the precious few creators whose output never falls short of the extraordinary.
The Tallis Scholars have yet to disappoint, and their performance here is simply lovely. Peter Phillips's direction demonstrates his ability to bring out Josquin's intricacies without sacrificing the greater musical arc.
My attention was also caught by the additional Credo Quarti Toni, whose attribution is questioned. For me, the question of its authenticity is put to rest by its astonishing rhythmic flexibility and sinuous continuity, which evokes, of all composers, Schoenberg.
Early Music America
The paraphrase masses on this release come from the second half of Josquin's career, composed probably after his return to the Netherlands following a fruitful career in Italy. The Ave Maris Stella Mass, based on the hymn by the same name, was composed before 1505 and exhibits many of the salient characteristics of his middle period: facility with canonic writing, clear imitive design that allows for individuality, and a cleverly woven fabric of vocal lines that yields a lucid harmonic structure.
The De Beata Virgine Mass is based on five different Marian chants, each one in a different mode. Josquin's flamboyant use of canon and harmony marks it as a late work, perhaps experimental, but the movements may not have belonged together originally. The 'Kyrie'and 'Gloria' are for four voices. The 'Credo', 'Sanctus', and 'Agnus Dei' each include a fifth voice that reproduces the chant in canon at the fifth. Adding to the complexity of strict canon is the shifting timbre in each movement, which results for the changing modal range governed by the chant paraphrase. Josquin's 'Cambrai Credo' uses the same method of composition. It departs in style only through the sublime use of chordal declamation to emphasize the crucial theological moment at "Et incarnatus est de Spiritu Sancto". Despite its difficulties, the De Beata Virgine Mass appears to have been his most popular, judging from its broad transmission in no fewer than 69 sources.
The Tallis Scholars are at their very best in this program. As usual, the ensemble singing is extremely refined and delicate. The singers clearly understand how to make this music sound gorgeous. Not a moment seems squandered. They reveal the nuance of Josquin's genius at every turn. Their pitch and timbre are always clear, the phrasing impeccable, the voices balanced. How could one argue with such beauty? Yet I wonder - Tallis Scholars have gotten a lot of milage (since 1973) out of their smooth, neatly proportioned, and articulate style of singing. It has been propagated by so many other ensembles that their sound has become the sound of Renaissance choral music. I love it, but I wonder whether there is another just as excellent way of singing this repertory?
American Record Guide, 1 March 2012
With this third volume* the new series of Josquin's masses begun by the Tallis Scholars in 2008 maintains its very high level of excellence, delivering repeated moments of pure magic despite at first sight seeming to be rather exacting.
Composed around 1510 and therefore one of Josquin's three last settings of the Ordinary, the Missa De beata virgine was the most distributed and quoted mass of the 16th century. In this is an unusual paradox, since the style of it is quite distinct from the dense, abundant, agile and dynamic method of most of Josquin's other settings. The listener can find himself disorientated by the absence of both tonal and thematic unity in De beata virgine - each movement paraphrases a different plainchant and therefore a different mode - as much as by the capricious counterpoint caused by the canons between the middle voices. And then there is the unusual texture of four and then five voices (from the Credo onwards) which regularly leaves a high and often acrobatic soprano part stranded. These difficulties probably explain the thin discography of music which is so famous and yet so disparate in style. When put against the efforts of A Sei Voci (Diapason D'or in 1995) or of Paul Hillier's Theater of Voices, the more restrained tempi, expansive phrasing and gleaming soprano line of the Tallis Scholars carries the field. And, as always, the impeccable finish which characterises Peter Phillips's ensemble permits one to savour in their smallest details the intriguing meanderings of this singular work of maturity.
With the joyful Missa Ave maris stella we are on more familiar contrapuntal and rhetorical territory. The plainchant motifs which swirl through the Kyrie, Gloria and Credo flash by with a marvellous fluidity. In the immense Sanctus Josquin deploys his entire arsenal, ending in the delicious polyrhythms which are superimposed on the words 'in excelsis' in the Hosanna. Here again the panache of the two sopranos is wonderfully evident in the way they play with their line, perched above the texture and full of life, underpinned by lower parts of an intense homogeneity whose delicate phrasings and rhythmical excitements are magisterially realised by maestro Phillips. This disc sings, shines, plays. Great art.
Well-blended voices in a sonorous space. Excellent width to the sound and also very good detail. Good dynamic range.
Editor's note: *This album is actually the fifth volume in The Tallis Scholars' series of Josquin Masses. Volume 1 was released in 1986 and Volume 2 was released in 1989.
The Music The fifth instalment of the Tallis Scholars' projected nine-disc cycle of the complete masses of the Franco-Flemish Renaissance master Josquin des Prés. These masses are all constructed on canons: Missa De beata virgine is an intricate stream-of-consciousness, stretched and discursive. Missa Ave maris stella is more to the point. Both create exquisite sound environments.
The Performance Peter Phillips has two voices to a part, the treble parts sung by women. The recorded sound is up close and personal, putting you right inside the music. So far, so good. And then it gets better. Missa De beata virgine breathes in long and easy-to-get-lost-in paragraphs, like the most complex contemporary score. But the sheer beauty of the sound, and Phillip's unshakable feel for direction, means you want to hang on: miss a single note and you're all the poorer. Missa Ave maris stella is easier to assimilate.
The Verdict An essential buy from a team who never put a note wrong. Excellent, informative booklet notes too.
Classic FM Magazine
This latest release in The Tallis Scholars’ evolving series of the complete Mass settings of Josquin brings us what Peter Phillips calls “two of Josquin’s most intense canonic Masses”.
The more expansive Missa De beata virgine is one of his later works and, as Peter Phillips says in his excellent note, it may be that it was not conceived as a unified setting for while the Kyrie and Gloria are in four parts the texture expands to five parts for the remaining movements. Whether the Mass is a unity or not it contains some very fine music.
Much though I enjoyed the music of Missa De beata virgine I found the earlier Missa Ave maris stella even more attractive. The Mass is prefaced by a verse of the plainchant on which it is based. This is sung by a solo tenor, the excellent Christopher Watson, and I found it really helpful to hear the chant in immediate proximity to the Mass.
The performance standards are as exemplary as ever. The singing of The Tallis Scholars is flawless. Yet that description should not for one second imply anything cold or academic. These are vital performances that bring Josquin's music vividly to life. The listener is engaged right from the start and consistently drawn onwards and into the music. As I've indicated, the clarity of the singing is a strong and consistent feature of these performances. No doubt it helps that the singers have been recorded beautifully by engineer Philip Hobbs in the lovely resonance of Merton Chapel. Documentation is, as ever, excellent from this source. This disc is an essential purchase for anyone with an interest in Josquin's music. Further volumes are eagerly awaited.
... the Tallis Scholars and Peter Phillips finding a perfect place to allow those musical lines to unfold against each other in the Chapel of Merton College, Oxford. It's a superbly focused recording.
There should always be a special place for this kind of high flown perfection and the sense of timelessness it evokes.
BBC Radio 3 - CD Review
For their latest recording The Tallis Scholars return to one of the greatest composers of the high Renaissance, with compelling accounts of two Masses by Josquin Desprez that seem opposed in terms of complexity and innovation yet united in artistry and craftsmanship. United, too, in other ways, as we discover from director Peter Phillips's booklet note: "With this recording we come to two of Josquin's most intense canonic Masses, both based on plainchant themes. They make an intriguing pair. The Missa De beata virgine (a late work) makes use of different chants in different modes, united only by the Marian theme of the original texts. The Missa Ave maris stella (an earlier, middle period work) is based on just one chant melody, Ave maris stella).
The first verse of the hymn is recorded here for reference; also included is the Credo quarti toni, which in the Cambrai manuscript appears after the Missa De beata virgine and which uses the same plainchant melody on which the Creeds of the two Masses are based. As with their previous Josquin recordings, The Tallis Scholars here achieve an extraordinary clarity of diction, line and texture that leans more towards explication rather than expression. That they get away with it is down to a sophisticated sense of word-painting that grows as much out of the tensions created by the complexity of the music as the meaning of the texts. This is especially true in that section of the Creed of the Missa De beata virgine which begins at Qui cum Patre et Filio (Who with the Father and the Son), which Phillips describes as 'the most famous passage of all' and which 'proved to be irresistible material' for theorists and was 'quoted endlessly'. Here both the canon and freer melodic material are thrown into sharp relief by an intensity that offers a steely elegance rather than mere beauty. The same movements Amen shares a similar, though more incandescent intensity. Also superbly rendered are the Sanctus of the Missa Ave maris stella, with its wonderful trio, and the Agnus Dei, which, to quote Phillips again, 'finds Josquin at his most inventive and his most inspired'. As does this recording by The Tallis Scholars.
International Record Review
In the fifth release in their Josquin cycle, The Tallis Scholars reach the Missa de Beata Virgine – probably a late work, widely performed in the composer's life time and surviving in an astonishing 69 sources – and the earlier, more serene Missa Ave maris stella. Both, though stylistically contrasting, use chant melody with elaborate canons and mathematical schemes. This exceptional ensemble makes it sound effortless, with impeccable tuning and evenness of tone.
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