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. Peter Phillips believes that the Mass may well be a dry-run for the later, better-known Missa Pange Lingua.
All the Masses in this series have been in four parts but, depending on the music, some have been performed with sopranos on the top line and some with female altos. Both the performances here fall into the latter category: two female altos sing the superius part while the next line down is sung by two male altos. As a generalisation the Masses that have sopranos on the top line sound somewhat more brilliant in tone whereas the forces deployed on this present disc produce a slightly darker, more richly-hued sound.
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.
A short video has been put on YouTube which usefully illustrates the way in which Josquin placed dice symbols in his manuscript. It also enables you to see the cantus firmus music while listening to some of the music.