The Tallis Scholars sing Josquin
"If one were looking for a superstar among Renaissance composers then Josquin is unquestionably the front runner. He was a star in his lifetime and he has become a star again more recently, aided in part when the recording of the two Masses on the first disc of this collection won the Gramophone Record of the Year Award." Peter Phillips
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Gimell has issued several twin-disc releases in the past, some of which have been devoted to the music of a single composer, including Byrd (CDGIM 208), Palestrina (CDGIM 204) and Tallis (CDGIM 203). This Josquin set draws on the series of recordings of his Masses by The Tallis Scholars and provides an excellent introduction both to that evolving series and to the music of this Flemish Master.
The two Masses on Disc One in this present collection first appeared on CDGIM 009. That's a particularly important disc in the history of The Tallis Scholars for with it they won the Record of the Year award from Gramophone magazine in 1987. That was the first time that an early music disc had received that accolade and it was not until 2010 that another early music recording was similarly recognised. The performances - and the music - are highly distinguished.
Missa Pange Lingua is based on a paraphrase of the plainchant hymn for the Feast of Corpus Christi and on the disc the hymn itself is sung before we hear the Mass. Peter Phillips says in his notes that this Mass has been described by one scholar as ‘a fantasy on a plainsong'. As I commented in my review of the original disc, the sheer variety, indeed flamboyance, of Josquin's four-part writing is quite amazing. The performance is meticulous and, as ever with this group, scrupulously balanced yet the singing never sounds studied. On the contrary, it's full of life. Missa La sol fa re mi is an earlier composition, published in 1502. Josquin based the entire Mass on the five notes - A, G, F, D, E - which are used as an almost omnipresent cantus firmus. It's perhaps a more restrained composition than the Pange Lingua Mass but the music is still full of interest and variety. Like its companion, it receives a superb performance.
Two shorter pieces have been added for this compilation. Praeter rerum serium is a Christmas motet in six parts. Peter Phillips describes the piece as one of "arresting sonorities and intricate musical detail." It's a very devotional piece, which unfolds spaciously and solemnly though towards the end the music becomes more lively and celebratory for a short time. The music has a grave beauty and is performed with the ensemble's usual exemplary control. The four-part Ave Maria is, by contrast, less richly textured and simpler and more direct in style. It's a lovely piece. As befits its subject, the music has a chaste purity.
Disc Two in this collection is a straight reissue of CDGIM 019. It had been believed, I think, that the more substantial setting, Super voces musicales is the earlier of the two Masses which Josquin based on the popular chanson, L'homme armé. However, in his essay accompanying this set Peter Phillips says that it now appears that the two Masses were coeval. As with the Pange lingua Mass on the other disc, we hear the chanson first and that's a great help though, in fact, the melody is easy to identify in the Super voces musicales Mass despite the virtuosity with which Josquin weaves his polyphonic invention around it. It's an extremely demanding piece on account of its length and vocal tessitura but The Tallis Scholars, working under studio conditions - which can be even more taxing than live performance - deliver the music marvellously. The chanson melody is almost always there in the background, except in three short sections of the Mass and Josquin uses the tune as the opportunity for some glorious invention. The listener is consistently delighted by the sheer richness of his music and by the wonderful intricacy of the part writing.
In the Sexti toni Mass the L'homme armé melody is harder to pick up - Josquin varies the way in which he interweaves it into the music with considerable subtlety. This setting is also deeply impressive and nowhere more so than in the Agnus Dei. Here the spaciousness of the music imparts a timeless feel and in the third ‘Agnus' Josquin expands the number of vocal parts from four to six. In this rapt section the performance by The Tallis Scholars rises to new heights of excellence with just the right amount of expressive warmth.
In my first review of the L'homme armé disc I commented that the performances of those two Masses exhibit the usual fastidious musicianship that is always the hallmark of a Tallis Scholars recording. I went on to say that the balance and tuning are impeccable and it is hard to imagine that this music could be better performed. Frankly, those comments are just as true of the performances that are contained on the first disc in this present set.
The recordings were made in two venues, Merton College Chapel and the Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in Salle, Norfolk. In both cases the audio results are exemplary and contribute actively to the success of the performances. As ever with Gimell, the documentation is very good.
For anyone coming to Josquin's music for the first time this generous compilation is an ideal way to discover his music. However, a word of warning is appropriate: the music is addictive and once you have sampled it in these exquisite performances you may well want to join The Tallis Scholars on their exploration of all Josquin's Masses.
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.