Josquin - Missa Gaudeamus and Missa L'ami Baudichon
"Josquin's restless, searching intellect is on display in every one of his Mass settings, yet few offer as great a contrast as Missa Gaudeamus and Missa L’ami Baudichon. Can the same man write so diversely? I say genius on this scale knows no rules." Peter Phillips
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Started many years ago now by conductor Peter Phillips and the Tallis Scholars, their ambitious project to record all of Josquin's Masses has come to its seventh volume. Once again, the wonder is twofold: first, in relation to the exceptional quality of the music and, secondly, in interpretations which are of the highest level.
The first people we would recommend this disc to are all those - so numerous these days - who appreciate the vocal music of a Pärt or a Górecki and who do not yet know the wonders of Renaissance polyphony. Happily this repertoire has recently ceased to be the preserve of musicologists and specialist music lovers, and it is now more than ever acknowledged that Luther was right when he referred to Josquin as 'der Notenmeister', the master of notes.
As often in the masses of the time, the composer drew inspiration from pre-existing music. For the Missa Gaudeamus, which opens the recording, the starting point is a substantial chant melody, which is sung on this disc before the mass itself begins. Composed towards the middle of Josquin's career it finds him at the peak of his powers. The technical mastery is quite stunning; but of course the complications and subtleties of this impressive score would only be dry mathematics if the music itself were not of such beauty.
Coming from nearer the beginning of Josquin's career, the Missa L' ami Baudichon is a simpler but no less beautiful setting. The music which serves as the starting point here is a bawdy song that (out of modesty?) the performers chose not to record. Compared to the profusion of complications in the Missa Gaudeamus, this setting has all the freshness of youth.
As for the interpretation, we can but surrender to the understanding which Phillips shows of this repertoire, aided by the flawless virtuosity of the Tallis Scholars, whose irreproachable intonation, perfect balance between the voices, finesse of phrasing and almost supernatural vocal beauty, are a perpetual source of wonder.
Of course we may speculate - even if we cannot know exactly what a performance of sacred polyphony sounded like in Hainaut, Flanders or Northern Italy at the time - if such an extraordinarily refined vocal approach was really what Josquin had in mind. Maybe what he expected was something nearer the fleshier approach of such ensembles as Capilla Flamenca or Graindelavoix. However these thoughts do not take anything away from the merits of these remarkable interpretations.
Sound 10 - Booklet 10 - Directory 10 - Interpretation 10
Founded by their director, Peter Phillips, in 1973, the Tallis Scholars still ride high among small vocal ensembles – lithe, pure-sounding and vigorous as ever in performance of Renaissance polyphony. Their latest disc of Josquin’s Missa Guadeamus and Missa L’ami Baudichon (Gimell) exceeds expectation. These two sharply contrasting works, one bristling with mathematical patterns, the other based on a vulgar popular song, comprise the seventh of nine albums in the Tallis Scholars’ series of Josquin’s 19 highly distinctive masses, to be completed by the composer’s 500th anniversary in 2021.
I’m wondering if the Tallis Scholars’ recordings of Josquin’s masses are targeted on the 500th anniversary of the death of the master in 2021. If so, Peter Phillips has kept two top settings under his hat for now (Hercules Dux Ferrariae and Faysant regretz); and has here delivered a disc divided between a youthful attempt, and a masterpiece from the middle of his career.
Missa Gaudeamus is a work of the fullest maturity. If the Gloria and Credo concentrate on embroidering the long-note tenor part, made up of unabridged statements of a substantial chant melody dedicated to the Virgin, with decorative counterpoints, the rest of the mass is taken over by whirlwind treatments of the first six notes of that chant, with its defining semitone at the top (G-A-A-E-F-E). This is done in the same resourceful way that he disposed of similarly pithy motifs in other settings of this type, for example in Missa La Sol Fa Re Mi - and certainly these shorter movements have some of the most arresting passages in Gaudeamus.
Conversely the model for Missa L’Ami Baudichon is justifiably mocked as one of the most idiotic in the history of music, both for its melodic laziness (E-E-D-D-C) and for the obscenity of its text. In what was probably Josquin’s first mass setting, the future ‘Prince of Musicians’ wasn’t able to do much with his farcical starting-point, perhaps chosen for the very reason that it did indeed represent a challenge. And he rose to it: his counterpoint is just as fluid and energetic as in the maturer work, for all the idiocy.
What the two settings share is identical vocal tessituras: a relatively high top line, riding above two closely linked lines in the middle of the texture - alto and high tenor – all supported by a baritone part. With this line-up of voices the limpid sound of the Tallis Scholars draws us in, underpinned as it is by a rhythmic sense of direction which perhaps has never before in the Tallis Scholars series quite so brilliantly captured the energy which binds Josquin’s syncopations together, alongside the suppleness which enables us to follow the logic of the music. And the captivating density of sound which the Tallis Scholars manage in the final bars of some of these movements can conjure up a sense of hectic vocal dancing, for example in the stunning conclusion to the Credo of L’Ami Baudichon. There is no need for me to point out that the several preceding recordings of these masses have been swept aside. And now onto the final apotheosis!
Quite apart from the radiance and precision of the performance, part of the delight of this latest Josquin [album] is the contrast between the two mass settings, the intense mathematical ingenuity of Missa Gaudeamus alongside the calmer, simpler setting of Missa L'ami Baudichon whose three-note theme sounds, says Phillips, disarmingly like Three Blind Mice. It makes it easier to follow, certainly. Recorded excellence comes as standard with this series which doesn't mean we shouldn't admire the naturalness of the voices in the Chapel acoustic.
The Tallis Scholars give shapely performances under Peter Phillips of two Mass settings by the Renaissance master Josquin des Prez. Missa L’Ami Baudichon, based on a vulgar folk song resembling Three Blind Mice, makes optimal use of limited means. By contrast, in the mature Missa Gaudeamus, the composer plays dazzling canonical games with his chant model, to often stunningly beautiful effect.
That music composed in the 14th and 15th centuries can be enjoyed and performed today is mind-boggling. As is looking at one of Josquin des Préz’s manuscripts, close enough to conventional modern notation for even a hick like me to get an inkling of what the music might sound like. This latest Tallis Scholars release features two contrasting Masses, the mature Missa Gaudemas’s intensity set against the earlier, breezier Missa L’ami Baudichon. Peter Phillips has his three tenors sing the plainchant Gaudeamus omnes before the corresponding mass begins, allowing us to hear how the chant’s opening notes infuse much of what follows. It's like seeing a simple line drawing transformed into a Renaissance painting. The singing is technically assured and full of warmth; these performers know their stuff and want to share it with us. Listen carefully to the closing “Agnus” and hear how cleverly Josquin uses fragments of the melody (which is printed in Gimell’s booklet). Delicious.
The Missa l’ami Baudichon is lighter in tone, much of it based on the melody of a simple French folk tune. Phillips refers the original’s “vulgar reference”, which you can read for yourself in the second line of the song, printed in full under the plainchant. Hmm. It didn't put Josquin off, and this mass is delightful. Moments like the brief final section of the Kyrie have a delicious swing. And Phillips rightly highlights the closing part of the Credo, tenors blasting out an improbably sustained high G as the other parts swirl around them. Impeccably recorded, with full texts and translations too.
The musical importance of Josquin Desprez (c1450/55-1521) cannot be overstated, yet several of his Masses are still not well represented on record. This new release brings The Tallis Scholars’ total to 14 and includes the seldom-heard Missa L’ami Baudichon. As ever, Peter Phillips and his singers bring confidence and elegance to Josquin’s music; and, as Caroline Gill and I recently discussed (Classics Reconsidered, 12/16), the consistency of vision since their 1987 Josquin is remarkable.
This new album follows a familiar format: two Masses in contrasting styles, presented by an all-vocal consort of 8 10 singers. In fact, it’s that very consistency of approach that is so useful when surveying Josquin’s staggering output. In Missa L’ami Baudichon, often considered the earliest due to the Dufay-esque use of a fragmentary cantus firmus, it’s quite amazing how much material Josquin builds around a tune as simple as ‘Three blind mice’. Revisiting the earlier recording by Peter Urquhart and Capella Alamire (Dorian, 11/95) I am struck by the dominating tone of their instrumental cantus firmus (sackbut) compared to the lightness of Peter Phillips’s tenors. As ever with The Tallis Scholars, interpretative gestures are subtle but flowing: listen for the deliciously well-controlled gush of excitement, a brass band climax in miniature, at Josquin’s triumphal Credo ending, ‘et vitam venture saeculi, Amen’. They find a wonderful sway in the garlands of polyphony and a sense of expectance in the tenors’ long final note.
Conversely, Missa Gaudeamus is almost certainly a middle-period work, and I am charmed by how the opening of the plainchant model presents a joyfully wide rising interval which permeates the polyphonic texture. The Tallis Scholars allow much light to filter through Josquin’s complex textures and they clearly delight in his beautifully spacious three-part setting of ‘Pleni sunt caeli et terra gloria tua’. Their sound may have softened slightly with a new generation of singers but it suits Missa Gaudeamus particularly well. This disc is surely one of their best recent releases.
This is volume 7 of a planned nine recordings by the Tallis Scholars that will present all of Josquin's published Mass settings. Inevitably, the more famous works have been taken care of already, but if you think that the relative obscurity of these two settings - based, respectively, on the plainsong introit for the feast of All Saints (1 November) and on a popular yet simple chanson with smutty connotations - means a reduction in quality, then you'd be very wrong indeed. As Peter Phillips writes, 'Josquin's restless, searching intellect is on display in every one of his Mass settings, yet few offer as great a contrast as Missa Gaudeamus and Missa L'ami Baudichon. Can the same man write so diversely? I say genius on this scale knows no rules.'
While the Tallis Scholars respond to the more sober intricacy of the Gaudeamus setting with their customary precision in all matters choral, it's in the secular-derived Mass where they really excel, responding to Josquin's weaving, diving, swirling lines and audacious, bold harmonic movements with obvious enjoyment. It's an outstanding performance, and bodes well for the remaining two instalments of the Josquin journey.
Performance ***** Recording *****
This is the seventh of nine projected discs in The Tallis Scholars' ongoing endeavour to record the complete Masses of Josquin des Prés. The pair of works recorded here mirror the composer's dual faces - one recondite, the other earthly.
The Missa Gaudeamus - based on the plainchant from which it takes its name - is a cerebral, spiritual inspiration, rigorously work out with a quasi-mathematical approach to the polyphony. Memorable highlights are the Gloria, which spirals to a heady climax; the 'Et in Spiritum Sanctum', where the basses plumb cavernous depths, and the haunting Agnus Dei which contrasts starkly beautiful canonic duets with elaborately woven tapestries of sound.
The Missa L'ami Baudichon, by contrast, is based on a simple French folk song whose vulgar text is a surprising spur for a sacred work. Josquin's youthful setting is breezy and radiant - a far cry from the more arcane treatment of the later, plainchant Mass. It's a light-filled work, and nowhere more so than in the 'Et resurrexit' of the Credo, where the outer voices circle joyfully round the imperturbable tenor, and soar to celestial heights in the final 'Amen'.
Peter Phillips has been leading his ensemble for well over 30 years and his passion for the music is tireless. The Scholars' typically silky, seraphic sound is here given a more robust and visceral edge, thanks to boyish-toned sopranos (apt for music originally performed by an all-male ensemble), stout lower voices and muscular rhythms.
Using just nine singers gives an intimacy to these readings and ensures clear-cut words and sharply delineated vocal lines. The vocal balance is sensitively judged, and Gimell's recording - in the Chapel of Merton College, Oxford - is lush without being overly splashy.
Two contrasting masses from the great Renaissance composer in beautifully sung accounts.
Despite the prestige of his music during and after his lifetime, we know so very little about the composer Josquin. So we must appreciate his masses for themselves, rather than worrying about how they fit into his musical life.
On this new disc from Peter Phillips and The Tallis Scholars on Gimell, there are two wonderfully contrasting masses Missa Gaudeamus and Missa L'ami Baudichon. And in fact, the contrast between the masses illustrates the sheer virtuosity of Josquin's style.
Missa Gaudeamus comes from Josquin's middle period, the ninth of the 18 masses attributed to him and written 20 years after his earliest examples and 20 years before his final works. It is based on a Latin chant Gaudeaumus omnes in Domino and is intended for the feast of All Saints. In fact, Josquin uses mostly just the first six notes of the chant (the full chant is used once in each of the Gloria and Credo) and then creates some superb polyphonic textures by applying mathematics. The result is not a dry academic exercise, but a wonderfully sensuous series of highly worked textures. In his booklet note, Peter Phillips gives a detailed breakdown of how the final Agnus Dei is constructed, and it is dizzying, the miracle being that you can listen to the music without ever having to be aware of the construction beneath it.
The early Missa L'ami Baudichon dates from the beginning of Josquin's career and is also based on a pre-existing melody, this time a popular song which has bawdy lyrics (something that never seemed to bother Renaissance composers). Though Josquin uses only the first few notes of the melody, what he does with it in this mass is entirely different to Missa Gaudeamus. The music is less highly wrought and more lyrical with the sheer beauty of the sound being important. Whereas Missa Gaudeamus uses all the parts equally in complex polyphony, in Missa l'ami Baudichon there is more often the feeling of the soprano line being supported by the lower parts.
As a bonus, the disc opens with the plainchant Gaudeaumus omnes in Domino, though regrettably, we do not get to hear the bawdy song on which Missa l'ami Baudichon is based, though the booklet prints the melody.
The Tallis Scholars sing these two masses in their own profoundly beautiful style, the individual lines blending and balancing, with finely shaped phrasing. It is a real joy to listen to. Of course, there are many other ways to perform this music, and that we know so little means that any sense of original performance practice must be an educated guess. On this disc, we simply enjoy the musicianship.
These two Mass settings are very different from each other. Peter Phillips tells us in his notes that Missa Gaudeamus was probably written right in the middle of Josquin’s Mass-writing career; it is thought to be the ninth of his eighteen settings. It was written for the Feast of All Saints and it’s based on a plainchant melody, which we hear in full, sung by three tenors, before the Mass itself is performed. In the main, Josquin only uses the first six notes of the chant for his structural framework. By contrast, Missa L’ami Baudichon is based on a three-note figure from a decidedly risqué French chanson. This Mass was probably composed around 1475.
The four-voice Missa Gaudeamus, says Phillips, “represents Renaissance artistry at its most intense”. The Kyrie is fairly concise in terms of the amount of time needed to sing it – just under three minutes here – but it seems to pack in quite a lot in terms of musical invention. In the Gloria, Peter Philips draws attention to the inventiveness with which Josquin deploys his six-note motif – apparently, at one point the tenors sing it for 45 continuous bars – but even if, like me, you can’t always pick up this technical accomplishment in what you hear, it’s impossible not to be impressed by the aural web of amazingly intricate polyphony. The music of the ‘Qui tollis’ section is very poised at first but gradually grows in intensity and the brief ‘Cum Sancto Spiritu’ bursts with positive energy. In the Credo my ear was caught in particular by the ‘Et incarnatus’ section with its wonderful long lines in every vocal part. When ‘Et Resurrexit’ is reached the members of The Tallis Scholars invest the music with a palpable sense of jubilation and that’s even more marked at ‘Qui ex Patre Filioque procedit’. The closing moments of the Creed are exultant; here, Josquin’s music is fast-moving and the singers make it truly exciting.
Later on in the work, the two ‘Hosanna’ sections are exuberant and vital; the second of these provides a super contrast, coming as it does after the solemn music of the Benedictus. In this passage of music the vocal parts seem almost to fall over each other, so teeming are the textures. The three-fold Agnus Dei consists of a first ‘Agnus’ sung by the consort. The second is a lovely and extended canon for the two sopranos, superbly sung here. The third ‘Agnus’ is the longest and the most intricate - Peter Phillips outlines Josquin’s dazzling compositional virtuosity in his notes. His expert singers bring Josquin’s music to life: despite the technical accomplishment that lies behind it there’s absolutely nothing dry or remotely academic about the music when it’s delivered like this.
Peter Phillips believes that the name Baudichon was probably given as a nickname for a ‘lusty and swaggering youth’. As I said earlier, Missa L’ami Baudichon takes as its inspiration a rather bawdy chanson, albeit only three notes are used. Phillips says that the Mass “represents Renaissance artistry at its most skittish”. Certainly, the Kyrie, though beautifully conceived, doesn’t seem to be the earnest plea for mercy that the words indicate. In the Gloria, the textures seem to me to be simpler than in the other Mass. The concluding section, beginning at ‘Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris’ displays youthful exuberance; you can sense Josquin flexing his compositional muscles. Such exuberance is also evident at the start of the Credo; this is fervent music, performed here with terrific spirit. Peter Phillips rightly draws our attention to the ‘Et resurrexit’ section. He tells us that this lasts for 157 bars and it seems to me to constitute a veritable stream of virtuosic music. The performance has great dynamism and Josquin’s music is fast-paced and genuinely exciting. If anyone thinks that Renaissance polyphony is dull then surely this track on the CD would change their mind. After the frenetic activity at the end of the Credo the ordered lines of the Sanctus provide a welcome contrast. The short ‘Hosanna’ sections impress through the majestic nature of the music, albeit in a compressed form. I sat back and simply enjoyed listening to this cheerful setting of the Mass.
As ever, The Tallis Scholars sing all the music on this disc flawlessly. However, what we hear is far from calculated “mere” perfection. The singers, responding to Peter Phillips’ direction, bring these Masses vividly to life. The ensemble has been recorded expertly by engineer Philip Hobbs. He’s long experienced in recording The Tallis Scholars in the acoustic of Merton College Chapel and it shows. The acoustic is ideally suited to music and performances such as these and the singers have been recorded with great clarity and just the right mount of ambience. As usual, the release is comprehensively documented.
This is another memorable issue in The Tallis Scholars’ Josquin series.