It’s two years since the last instalment in the projected complete set of Josquin Masses from Peter Phillips and The Tallis Scholars. This latest release is the seventh in the series and I understand there will be two more before the mission is accomplished.
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 amount of ambience. As usual, the release is comprehensively documented.
This is another memorable issue in The Tallis Scholars’ Josquin series.