Despite the prestige of his music during and after his lifetime, we know so very little about the composer Josquin. So we must appreciate his masses for themselves, rather than worrying about how they fit into his musical life.
On this new disc from Peter Phillips and The Tallis Scholars on Gimell, there are two wonderfully contrasting masses Missa Gaudeamus and Missa L'ami Baudichon. And in fact, the contrast between the masses illustrates the sheer virtuosity of Josquin's style.
Missa Gaudeamus comes from Josquin's middle period, the ninth of the 18 masses attributed to him and written 20 years after his earliest examples and 20 years before his final works. It is based on a Latin chant Gaudeaumus omnes in Domino and is intended for the Feast of All Saints. In fact, Josquin uses mostly just the first six notes of the chant (the full chant is used once in each of the Gloria and Credo) and then creates some superb polyphonic textures by applying mathematics. The result is not a dry academic exercise, but a wonderfully sensuous series of highly worked textures. In his booklet note, Peter Phillips gives a detailed breakdown of how the final Agnus Dei is constructed, and it is dizzying, the miracle being that you can listen to the music without ever having to be aware of the construction beneath it.
The early Missa L'ami Baudichon dates from the beginning of Josquin's career and is also based on a pre-existing melody, this time a popular song which has bawdy lyrics (something that never seemed to bother Renaissance composers). Though Josquin uses only the first few notes of the melody, what he does with it in this mass is entirely different to Missa Gaudeamus. The music is less highly wrought and more lyrical with the sheer beauty of the sound being important. Whereas Missa Gaudeamus uses all the parts equally in complex polyphony, in Missa l'ami Baudichon there is more often the feeling of the soprano line being supported by the lower parts.
As a bonus, the disc opens with the plainchant Gaudeaumus omnes in Domino, though regrettably, we do not get to hear the bawdy song on which Missa l'ami Baudichon is based, though the booklet prints the melody.
The Tallis Scholars sing these two masses in their own profoundly beautiful style, the individual lines blending and balancing, with finely shaped phrasing. It is a real joy to listen to. Of course, there are many other ways to perform this music, and that we know so little means that any sense of original performance practice must be an educated guess. On this disc, we simply enjoy the musicianship.