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Reviews

Gimmell CDGIM 050
28 Oct 2018

Complementary Josquin masses from The Tallis Scholars

This recording on the Gimell label, the seventh of nine in a series by the Tallis Scholars which will document Josquin des Prés’ settings of the Mass (several of these and other settings are of disputed authorship), might be titled ‘Sacred and Profane’, or ‘Heaven and Earth’.

Josquin Masses – Missa Gaudeamus and Missa L’ami Baudichon

The Tallis Scholars, directed by Peter Phillips

Gimmell CDGIM 050 [CD]

$19.98  Click to buy

For, Peter Phillips, the Tallis Scholars’ founder (in 1973) and director, has chosen to pair the Missa Gaudeamus, based on the introit ‘Gaudeamus omnes in Domine’, with the Missa L’ami Baudichon which draws upon a secular song, notable for its textual lewdness: a reference to female genitalia in the French language text is excised in the only source to present the text, now held in Verona.

In his CD liner note, Phillips explains that the Gaudeamus cantus firmus is associated with All Saint’s Day from which it derives it liturgy, a view proposed - not without dispute by other scholars - by Willem Elders in his Studien zur Symbolik in der Musik der alten Niederlander (1968) and Symbolic Scores: Studies in the Music of the Renaissance (1995).

Further, the Missa Gaudeamus, which is assumed to date from the composer’s middle period of the mid 1480s (though it is documented only in Petrucci’s first book of masses in 1502), is said by Elders to be permeated by ‘hidden’ and mystical numerical ‘codes’. These will probably be seldom detectable or of little import to the listener. What will undoubtedly strike the ear more emphatically is the resonant ambience of the initial articulation of the chant - the engineers having exploited the sonorous acoustic of the College of Merton College Oxford - which, cascading in inspiring echoes from the Chapel’s walls, windows and alcoves seems designed to inspire the fervent, flowing drive of the Kyrie and subsequent movements.

Josquin seldom states the whole chant, excepting the Gloria and Credo where it is embellished in the tenor; instead, snatches of the first six notes which are characterised by an aspiring, invigorating ascending leap of a ‘pure’ 5th, infiltrate the music, sometimes suggesting a sweeping, spacious expanse, sometimes ‘filled in’ with stepwise melodic movement.

The effect is a homogeny of gesture - and on this recording, of timbre, dynamics and mood also - which at times exerts a hypnotic, magnetic tug and elsewhere seems a little unalleviated. This listener was swept up in the mellifluous precision - of intonation, vocal entries, rhythmic interplay - and forward drive of the Tallis Scholars’ committed rendition, Phillips adopting swift tempi and pushing fervently onwards. But, I longed at times for a little more dynamic contrast, both within and between phrases, and timbral variety. The latter comes not through expressive or devotional interpretation but only when Josquin reduces and varies his forces: most notably in the Sanctus and Benedictus where the light and airy three-voice (SAB) ‘Pleni sunt caeli’ takes off in the first ‘Hosanna in excelsis’, as if a multitude have been inspired to ecstatic worship by such lucid devotion. Similarly, the sparse counterpoint of the Benedictus, which intimates a gravity sometimes absent elsewhere, is followed by a second ‘Hosanna’ of secure and assuring faith. Likewise, the dynamic cross-rhythms of the opening Kyrie are succeeded by the ambiguous, fervently rhapsodic weak-beat entries of the Christe, before being cleansed by the sparser textures of the second Kyrie episode.

Not every such opportunity for such contrast is taken up: the ‘Qui tollis’, following the vibrant Gloria, opens with the two lower voices moving in slower rhythmic values, but Phillips pushes ever forwards. I think that a little more spaciousness and pause for reflection would, occasionally, have been advantageous, though it’s certainly the case that the excited ebb and flow of voices in the Gloria creates real ardency and energy, and the move from duple to triple meter for the concluding ‘Cum Sancto spiritu’ and ‘Amen’ is wonderfully persuasive and uplifting.

It is the Credo that is most compelling, though, as Josquin floods the voices with florid but elegant developments of the cantus firmus and pushes the higher three voices ever upwards; again, I’d have liked a little more spaciousness here - for example during the textural contrasts of the repetitions of ‘omnia secula’, where the relentlessness can obscure the rhetorical power of individual utterances - though it is true that the overlapping entries have a mesmeric power. And, as ‘Et resurrexit’ in the ‘Et incarnatus’ episode pushes forward one feels that sound is prioritised over text. ‘Et unam sanctum’ follows with barely a pause or breath, though Phillips does permit and welcome, enrichening broadening in the final Amen.

The overall vocal balance is controlled, though the soprano entries sometimes sound rather too dominant (interestingly, Elders notes, the discantus part of the Missa Gaudeamus, in common with Josquin’s two other Masses in honour of Our Lady, is written wholly in the G clef, suggesting the use of boys’ voices). Moreover, the flattening of particular pitches within the modes does not seem to be a consistently applied principle.

But, Phillips structures the Agnus Dei persuasively: the second repetition of the text - sung by the overlapping, intertwining, dialoguing soprano and alto soloists - is a lovely palette cleanser for the final, sombre statement in which the alto descends to serious depths, carried downwards by the same scalic motifs which raise up the heaven-bound soprano.

There’s nothing very heaven-bound, one might think, about the Missa L’ami Baudichon: in pre-7th century French ‘baud’ means joyful and it is commonly assumed that ‘Baudichon’ is the nickname for a ‘lusty swaggering youth’. But, if the text derives from the secular, the music seems to strive for the divine and infinite. This is usually considered to be one of the earliest of Josquin’s Mass settings, although the attribution has been doubted: David Fallows, for example, has suggested that the extensive duos are more indicative of Dufay’s writing than that of Josquin, concluding (in his 2009 book), ‘I really do not believe this can be a work of Josquin: logic aside, it simply feels to me wrong, even though it has more than its fair share of truly marvellous moments’.

And, ‘marvellous moments’ there are in plenty. The richness of resounding organ stops seems to lift the start of the Kyrie, the simple descending melody - not unlike ‘Three Blind Mice’ - borne aloft with a broadness and expanse missing in the Missa Gaudeamus. And, the Tallis Scholars seem inspired to more emotive and visceral expression. The vibrantly rolled ‘r’ in ‘Christe’ evinces real human devotion and passion, and the strong colour and energy of the bass line seems to lift the other voices: the sopranos have a lovely brightness and freshness, while the inner voices move with joyful vigour.

This sense of aspiration and confidence continues in the Gloria, where initially the soprano and bass lines endeavour in complementary fashion, as if contouring the expanse of the heavenly spheres. When they are joined by the alto and tenor, the full choir radiates real human energy - all its glories and imperfections. The lack of elaborate contrapuntal (and numerical?) argument between the alto and bass in the ‘Qui Tollis’ is direct and affecting, and seems to inspire the singers to inject more individual colour into their respective lines, creating greater dynamic variety and a lively conversation. The ‘Cum sancto spiritu’ which closes the Gloria is invigorating and visceral in timbre, while the wide vistas of the Credo rove and roam, rhythmically energised, modally inflected.

Two duos articulate the ‘Et incarnatus’ and ‘Crucifixus’ - by ST then AB respectively - before all four voices join together for ‘Et resurrexit’: and here, the opening bare fifth and subsequent homophonic richness are almost rudely confident and direct, though such features give way to lighter, tripping, decorative interjections, around the tenor’s bold, almost defiant, long-held notes. The Sanctus is similarly confident - harmonically and texturally ambitious - and resonantly sung. And, the experimentation and exploration in ‘Pleni sunt’ which temporally pits two in soprano against three in alto and inflects the invigorating lines with modal nuance, is responded to by all four voices with joyful brightness: ‘Hosanna’ indeed.

One might suggest that these two Masses are the work of different composers, but Phillips comments of the two ‘sound worlds: the one intensely worked, the other joyful, bright, easy-going’: ‘I would say genius on this scale knows no rules.’

This recording of Missa Gaudeamus and Missa L’ami Baudichon by the Tallis Scholars is released on 2nd November by Gimell.

Claire Seymour

   

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