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Performances

08 Jun 2019

Josquin des Prez and His Legacy: Cinquecento at Wigmore Hall

The renown and repute of Josquin des Prez (c.1450-1521) both during his lifetime and in the years following his death was so extensive and profound that many works by his contemporaries, working in Northern France and the Low Countries, were mis-attributed to him. One such was the six-part Requiem by Jean Richafort (c.1480-c.1550) which formed the heart of this poised concert by the vocal ensemble Cinquecento at Wigmore Hall, in which they gave pride of place to Josquin’s peers and successors and, in the final item, an esteemed forbear.

Josquin des Prez and his legacy: Cinquecento at Wigmore Hall

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Cinquecento

Photo credit: Theresa Pewal

 

We don’t know for certain if Richafort wrote his six-voice Missa pro defunctis as a memorial to Josquin, upon the latter’s death in 1521. But, it’s a tempting and not unlikely notion, given the Mass’s numerous allusions - explicit and assimilated - to compositions by Josquin. It had been thought that Richafort was one of Josquin’s pupils, though some scholars now argue that it would be more appropriate to consider them as belonging to the same artistic ‘school’.

Indeed, the programme was a palimpsest of cross-references and self-quotations. Richafort’s Mass quotes from the six-voice motet, ‘Nymphes, nappés’, which is itself based on the antiphon ‘Circumdederunt me gemitus mortis’ - the chant that Richafort introduces in canon form into each movement of the Mass. In addition, the Gradual and Offertory quote a melody setting the phrase, ‘C’est douleur non pareille’, also in two-voice canon, drawn from Josquin’s five-voice chanson ‘Faulte d’argent.

The five members of Cinquecento were joined by tenor Nicholas Todd for their performance of Richafort’s Mass, which was characterised by magnitude of expression and depth of feeling. In the Introitus, the lines extended seamlessly, seemingly sung in one unbroken breath. Individual voices were at times brought to the fore, to point a melodic elaboration or emphasise a dissonance arising, sometimes unexpectedly, from the collision of polyphonic lines. Often there was a sense of a gradual ‘freeing’ of the sound as movements progressed, the ensemble tone grounded by the tender bass of Austrian Ulfried Staber. Despite Wigmore Hall’s fine resonance, occasionally I longed for a cathedral acoustic which would lift, swell and swirl the sound in an embracing sweep. Cadences were finely graded, often ‘coming to rest’ with gentleness after the blossoming explorations, a soothing relaxation after the engendered tension. In the Graduale, there was a wonderfully reverential diminishment, ‘Non timebo mala, quoniam tu mecum es, Domine’ (I shall not fear evil, for you are with me, Lord); then, a flowering, the graceful unfolding of a bud’s petals, at the close of this movement: ‘Virga tua et baculus tuus, ipsa me consolata sung’ (Your rod and your staff, they comfort me). Throughout, Cinquecento demonstrated superb control and grading of dynamics.

Paradoxically, within the homogenous idiom in which all lines are bound to the cantus firmus which is deeply and almost inextricably embedded within the dense polyphony, there were striking contrasts. In the Offertorium, the quiet opening line of chant, ‘Domine Jesu Christe’, was followed by a blaze of rejoicing, ‘Rex gloriae’. Strange dissonances at the end of movement - ‘Fac eas, Domine, de morte transire ad vitam sanctam’ (allow them, Lord, to cross from death into holy life) -were eased and salved in the concluding phrase, ‘Quam olim Abrahae promisisti/Et semini eius’ (as long ago you promised Abraham and his seed). The ‘Sanctus’ was vigorous and purposeful, while in the Agnus Dei Cinquecento produced an elevated tone, sinking low and hushed as if in humility with the closing plea for eternal rest.

The two works by Josquin which are quoted by Richafort were interleaved between the movements of the Mass in the first part of the concert. ‘Nymphes, nappés’ was fittingly melancholy yet euphonious while harmonic, rhythmic and textural restlessness characterised ‘Faulte d’argent’. Flexibility and naturalness of utterance were also noteworthy in the Stabat mater for five voices which opened the second half of the concert: again, the expressiveness of the cadential dissonances was striking, as the flattening of the mode in the penultimate ‘Paradisi gloria’ evened into two repeated chords: ‘Amen’. Countertenor Terry Wey’s declarative ‘Inviolata’ at the opening of the eponymous five-voice motet, was followed by the flowing colour of the homage to Mary ‘whole and chaste’ (‘integra et casta’); such details offered the listener rich pathways to the deep sentiments of Josquin’s texts.

Alongside the works by Josquin and Richafort, we heard Benedictus Appenzeller’s interesting ‘Musae Jovis’ á 4, an elaborate unfolding of grief, always poised and controlled. After the pianissimo resignation, ‘Josquinus ille occidit’ (Josquin himself is dead), ‘harsh death’ (Severa mors] was assertively challenged, and there was bitterness in the final complaint against the unjust reaper who had carried off the good, sparing the evil. Interwoven through the programme were various Gregorian chants which were sung with clarity and dignity, sometimes moving from a solo voice to a persuasively blended unison. Belgian tenor Tore Tom Denys introduced ‘Absolve, Domine’, which subsequently warmed into a soothing blend of subtly nuanced lyricism.

The closing item saw Josquin himself looking back and lamenting the passing of an illustrious predecessor, Johannes Ockeghem. His ‘Déploration sur la mort d’Ockeghem’ draws on both Josquin’s own lamenting chanson, ‘Nymphes des bois’, and the Introitus Requiem aeternam of Ockeghem's Missa pro Defunctis. After the vigorous interplay of independent voices, the final line - ‘Requiescat in pace. Amen.’ - indeed brought peace, Cinquecento’s lovely sonority, here and throughout the performance, speaking of things both heavenly and human.

Claire Seymour

Josquin des Prez and his legacy

Cinquecento (Terry Whey, countertenor; Achim Schulz, tenor; Tore Tom Denys, tenor; Tim Scott Whiteley, baritone; Ulfried Staber, bass); Nicholas Todd, tenor.

Gregorian Chant - Circumdederunt me; Jean Richafort - Requiem a 6; Josquin des Prez - ‘Nymphes, nappés’ a 6; Gregorian Chant - De profundis; Josquin des Prez - ‘Faulte d’argent’; Gregorian Chant - ‘Absolve, Domine’; Benedictus Appenzeller - ‘Musae Iovis’ a 4; Josquin des Prez - Stabat mater, ‘Inviolata’ a 5; Gregorian Chant - Libera me; Josquin des Prez - ‘Nymphes des bois’ or (Déploration sur la mort d'Ockeghem).

Wigmore Hall, London; Friday 7th June 2019.

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