Josquin - Missa Di dadi and Missa Une mousse de Biscaye
"Can great music be inspired by the throw of dice? The possibility clearly excited Josquin, who prefaced the tenor part in several of the movements of his Missa Di dadi with a pair of dice, each pair giving a different total score." Peter Phillips.
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Why bother to review a new recording from The Tallis Scholars? You know just what you'll find - damn near perfection (how startling is any tiny blemish!) in tuning, balance, phrasing, blend, pacing, dynamic range - and anything else you care to mention.
Well, for one thing, maintaining such quality can never be taken for granted. Meeting expectations, not least in complex and demanding repertoire such as this, is immensely taxing. Reputation brings pressure. More than that, this latest volume in the Tallis Scholars' survey of the Josquin Masses adds to the accumulation of evidence demonstrating in modern times what the composer's contemporaries knew only too well: that here was a genius. Yes, these are early works - the Missa Une mousse de Biscaye may be the first of Josquin's Masses, from the mid-1470s. Yet the stamp of mastery is unmistakeable. Yes, at times the music is austere and cerebral - more singers' than listeners' music. But then come such blazes of sound as in the Crucifixus of the Missa Di Dadi to send the senses spinning.
Both works have intriguing secular backgrounds - the Missa Di dadi apparently reflecting the love of the dice enjoyed by one of Josquin's several employers, the Duke of Milan; the Missa Une mousse de Biscaye based on a tune reflecting the confusion when two lovers - one French, the other Basque - can't communicate. Given time and space, it's music that draws the listener in, 'killing care and grief of heart'.
In his review of this recording, John Quinn found himself at a loss for words: between us we seem to have used up all the superlatives in earlier reviews of The Tallis Scholars, live and on record. As I'm following up his review, I'm even more at a loss for words to express my appreciation of this latest recording. It's a worthy Recording of the Month and it bids fair to become one of my Recordings of the Year, following in the footsteps of one of my choices for 2015: John Taverner Missa Corona Spinea and other works (CDGIM 046).
Last year Taverner; this year The Tallis Scholars return to the wonderful series which they have made of Josquin's masses. I've followed the series avidly and been highly impressed by them all. The earliest recordings in the series are offered as a 2-for-1 set, The Tallis Scholars sing Josquin, containing the Missa pange lingua, Missa La sol fa re mi and his two Masses based on the L'homme armé theme. That superb value set, containing his best-known Masses, is the place to start even if you have recordings of some of them - and there are no current rivals for Missa La sol fa re mi.
This is the sixth volume in the projected complete Josquin Mass series by Peter Phillips and The Tallis Scholars. Both of the settings on this disc have unusual titles.
Peter Phillips explains in his absorbing notes that the tenor part in several of the movements in Missa Di dadi is prefaced by a picture of a pair of dice, each time showing a different score. Over the years a number of theories have been advanced as to what the dice may signify. Though Phillips doesn't indicate which, if any, of these theories he finds most credible, he suggests that the device may have relevance to the fact that Josquin probably worked in Milan during the 1480s at which time the city was a "hot-house" of gambling.
The Mass setting uses as its cantus firmus base the tenor part of a chanson, N'aray je jamais mieuls (Shall I never have better than I have) by Robert Morton.
Whilst it's a delight to hear these Josquin Masses the series does pose a problem to a reviewer. So consistent is the quality of both the music and the performances that one finds it increasingly hard to find anything new to say.
Whilst listening to Missa Di dadi I noticed - and enjoyed - the firm yet not obtrusive bass line. The two basses who sing here, Rob Macdonald and Tim Scott Whiteley provide just the right degree of sonority yet, as ever with this ensemble, all the parts are beautifully balanced against each other. All the music is superb but a couple of passages particularly caught my ear. The second half of the Credo, from ‘Et resurrexit', is really intense in this performance, building to a most exciting conclusion. The very spacious Sanctus is followed by a ‘Hosanna'; that can only be described as jubilant. And I love the way that when the ‘Hosanna' is reprised after the Benedictus it's given a lighter treatment by Phillips and his singers. The Agnus Dei is in three sections. The central ‘Agnus' is a long, sinuous duet for a single tenor and a bass while the outer ‘Agnus' sections, marvellously unhurried, involve the full, rich ensemble.
Like Missa Di dadi the authorship of Missa Une mousse de Biscaye has been questioned, Peter Phillips tells us but he feels it is likely that both are by Josquin. The latter, he explains, is based on a secular tune with a French and Basque text and the word ‘mousse' is derived from a Castilian word ‘moza' which means lass. Hence the title of the Mass refers to a lass from Biscaye, a province in the Basque region of northern Spain.
The same vocal forces are involved as before, though there are some changes to the personnel. Once again we experience the same rich textures but there are some passages where the music seems to reach higher than in the other Mass. One such is the opening Kyrie. Later, in the ‘Pleni sunt caeli' section of the Sanctus the music becomes positively airborne with exciting, florid lines. The same is true of ‘Hosanna I' Peter Phillips suggests that both Masses may well show the young Josquin experimenting with what he can achieve. Assuming that's so then it seems to me that he experimented to excellent effect: the level of accomplishment and invention he attained in both of these settings is very high.
The standard of singing throughout both Masses is wonderful. Engineer Philip Hobbs has worked on many Tallis Scholars recordings with producer Steve Smith in Merton College Chapel and they understand the acoustic instinctively it seems so the recorded sound is absolutely ideal. As is usual with Gimell the documentation is comprehensive. One aspect of presentation is worthy of comment. Previous issues in the series have placed each movement of a Mass on one track so that there were usually 10 or 11 tracks per disc. This time, however, the individual movements have been subdivided into a number of sections with the result that there are no fewer than 34 tracks on this CD. That's extremely helpful, especially if you want to go back to check something.
This is a wonderful Josquin series and this latest instalment is another fine success. I believe there are sixteen Josquin Masses of which Peter Phillips and his team have now recorded twelve. Recordings of the remaining settings are awaited with great interest.
Another winner! This latest Josquin offering from the Tallis Scholars brings together two of the early masses. The opening Missa Di Dadi is particularly interesting, both for its use of gaming symbols in the notation of the tenor cantus firmus (though, fascinatingly, these disappear after the ‘Pleni sunt caeli', possibly reflecting the concomitant Elevation of the Host) and for its echoes of the late, great Missa Pange Lingua - for example, at the end of the Gloria, with its typically Josquinian close-wrought driving sequential ostinati.
The Missa Une mousse de Biscaye (mousse being not culinary, but derived from the Castilian 'Moza' for girl) is more loosely structured, but no less musically satisfying. Performances are, as usual, meticulously crafted. Tempi are relatively relaxed, allowing the music's textural complexities full breathing space. Tuning, ensemble and overall shaping are as good as it gets.
The accompanying notes are models of scholarly precision; a generous bonus is the inclusion of the complete score of the Missa Di Dadi as a PDF download, ideal for following and revelling in Josquin's compositional genius.
One of the sad things about Josquin research is that works are judged spurious - or even just possibly spurious - and then get forgotten entirely. That is partly because there are so many superb Josquin works that are beyond doubt; but all the same it is a pity. Besides, the case of the Missa Une Mousse de Biscaye has been one of the most energetically argued over the years, both for and against. The main issues here are that there are a lot of dissonances that are uncharacteristic of his mature style; and the main counter-argument is that in his early years he was experimenting with many different styles. Either way, there seems not to have been a recording of it since 1959, which is a great pity, because it is a marvellous piece, whoever composed it. Some years ago I went on record as thinking that, on balance, it was probably not by Josquin. Now that I have heard this wonderful recording I am almost ready to rethink the whole thing.
In his booklet-note, Peter Phillips makes no secret of the disputed nature of both masses on this record; that the cover simply describes both as ‘Josquin Masses' seems to me no problem, though obviously some purchasers could feel duped. But what is clear is that both works are magnificent achievements, beautifully sung. As concerns the Missa Di Dadi, I am still inclined to stay with my earlier view that it is by a younger composer who had absorbed Josquin's style, but the important matter here is that Peter Phillips and the Tallis Scholars approach the two works in entirely different ways, treating the Missa Di Dadi in a much gentler manner, with extended passages allotted to solo voices, whereas the Missa Une Mousse de Biscaye get a much more robust performance. In both masses they have only eight voices, with women on only the top line.
The Missa di Dadi owes its name to the depiction of dice ("dadi") before each section, showing how the cantus firmus should be interpreted. The Missa Une mousse de Biscaye is based on a song where a French boy and a Basque girl (the "mousse") are engaged in baffling dialogue. The Tallis Scholars' accounts of these devout, elegant works are beautifully blended and paced.
The Sunday Times
Listeners hoping that Josquin might have deployed aleatoric, Cageian techniques in his Missa Di Dadi might feel short-changed here, though the musical virtues of this disc are never in question. The emoji-like dice graphics which Josquin placed at the head of the tenor part in several movements mostly function like musical performance directions, their score combinations giving the singers information about note and phrase lengths. Peter Phillips's scholarly, entertaining sleeve essay makes a valiant attempt to explain the process, pointing out Josquin's cheekiness at including gambling references in a sacred work. The Tallis Scholars sing flawlessly on this latest volume in an ongoing Josquin series. Impeccable intonation allows us to appreciate the composer's harmonic boldness. Notably the moments where one voice remains fixed on a particular note whilst the other lines take us in unexpected directions.
The Missa Une mousse de Biscaye is another earlier work, partly based on a secular folk tune. Frustratingly we're not told exactly where the melody appears, though there's a folkish, improvisatory lilt to the first part of the "Kyrie". The singing is deliciously accomplished, tenors and basses superb at the start of the "Credo", the mass ending softly with a sublime "Agnus Dei". A beautiful disc, the Merton College chapel acoustic adding a saintly glow to proceedings.
The Tallis Scholars and Peter Phillips are brilliant on the latest in their series of recordings.
Take a roll of the dice and find the starting point for a new mass. It seems unlikely? The young Josquin clearly liked the idea in the late 15th century when he composed his Missa Di dadi (”The Dice Mass”), if indeed it was written by him.
This and the Missa Une mousse de Biscaye, based on a popular song about a young Frenchman and a Basque girl, are the latest in the series of Josquin recordings by the Tallis Scholars and Peter Phillips. Honed over 30 years or more, their singing of Josquin is second to none.
For brilliance of focus and precision the dice have again turned up sixes.
The Financial Times
The Tallis Scholars have for some years now been recording the masses of the great early Renaissance composer Josquin des Prez (d1521), and this brings their tally to 12 with a few more to go. Neither work here, both based on chanson tunes, is absolutely securely by Josquin, but still this is glorious music.
The Di dadi Mass (the title refers to the faces of a dice, the different numbers of which dictate the speed of the underlying tune) is performed here in a subdued but fluent manner. The small choir of eight voices (females on the top line) is nicely controlled so that the moments of exultation have real impact.
The Missa Une mousse de Biscaye is based on a song about a lass from Biscaye in the Basque country. Its fantasia-like runs in the 'Qui tollis' section of the Gloria display the pliancy of this group of singers, and dramatic flair at 'Et resurrexit' in the Credo.
Most of us are probably familiar with aleatoric music, where elements of random chance are incorporated into the composition or performance of a piece. The term is mostly associated with the American twentieth century, with composers such as Charles Ives, Henry Cowell, Alan Hovhaness and particularly John Cage all exploring the potential of this radically different approach, not to mention Karlheinz Stockhausen and the late Pierre Boulez in Europe.
This week's disc, though, suggests the tantalising possibility that the Americans were beaten to it by nearly half a millennium, by none other than Josquin des Pres. The music of his Missa di dadi - literally, the Dice Mass - may have been partly determined by the rolling of dice, and was almost certainly influenced by the gambling-obsessed society and ducal court of late fifteenth-century Milan in which he worked.
Based on a popular chanson of the time, each movement is headed by an illustration of a pair of dice, which indicate by what ratio the chanson melody needs to be slowed down to fit with the other parts. Most fascinatingly of all, it's been speculated that Josquin, when he was starting the composition of this mass, may have used dice-rolls to determine these ratios before then composing the other parts to fit. Curiously, the dice illustrations disappear partway through the mass - at exactly the same moment as the liturgy changes mood and the most sacred part of the service begins. It's been suggested that there is a moral hidden here: that the lure of earthly vices can, or should, pale in comparison to the faith that the mass enacts. Nobody can say for sure, though the chanson's title, N'aray je jamais mieulx? - translated as "Shall I never have better than I have?" - does point to a double meaning, referring equally to the gambler's anxiety about their winnings and to the devout believer's prospect of reward and comfort in Heaven.
Josquin may or may not have rolled the dice to set the tempo of his various cantus firmi, but the Tallis Scholars leave nothing to chance in their performance. The same meticulous control, peerless balance and blend and sensitivity to line are on display here as in their other recordings; every time I listen to them I am reminded of why they have such a reputation for quality. It was the Tallis Scholars' performances that first made me realise how early music could sound, and this disc is no exception. Josquin's two masses - the Dice Mass and the Missa Une mousse de Biscaye, the latter based on a folksong about a young Francophone man's unsuccessful wooing of an uncomprehending Basque girl (the mysterious "mousse" is a corruption of the Castilian "moza" meaning "lass") - are both rich and sumptuous in sound.
The second mass on the disc is in fact the earliest-known of Josquin's masses, dating from the mid-1470s. As one might expect of an early work, particularly by such an innovative composer, it displays some quirks, such as an unusually long, fantasia-like Credo and thematic links between the Kyrie and Agnus (a rarity in Josquin's time).
Such scholarly curiosities aside, Josquin's style is already very much recognisable in this early work. In all his various mass settings, he continually experiments with the potential offered by the form, and this pair of magnificent works are just two examples among many of his insatiable musical curiosity.
One of the Tallis Scholars' main goals is the popularising of music of this kind to a wider audience, and I suspect very few people have heard of either of these two masses. I promised myself I would resist the temptation to make gambling-related puns, but if you don't think you like Josquin then I think you could do a lot worse than to take a chance on this album - two beautifully constructed, originally conceived and flawlessly performed masses that unveil layer after layer of their intricate part-writing with each listening. I would hesitate to call him "easy listening" but there is something about Josquin's music that is wonderfully undemanding to the listener; there are no searing climaxes and no depths of anguish, but simply a constant, assured serenity.