Gary Higginson
MusicWeb International
February 2021

The Brabant Ensemble and Hyperion have been doubly astute with this release. First, they luckily recorded it before Covid took hold, tragically preventing choirs from singing together, and secondly, they realised that 2021 marks the five-hundredth anniversary of the composer’s death, which falls in late August, having been recording more obscure composers in recent years. In addition, the disc complements the complete mass cycles completed by The Tallis Scholars and various discs of Josquin’s secular works.

Martin Luther, no mean musician himself, had observed that Josquin was ‘a master of notes’ adding wryly that by comparison other composers seem to ‘be mastered by them’. This is very true of the setting Alma redemptoris mater/Ave Regina caelorum which manages to use two plainsong melodies simultaneously. The soprano and bass voices mostly sing the Alma redemptoris and the alto and tenor the Ave Regina. The opening of the work even references Ockeghem’s Alma Redemptoris. According to David Fallows however, as quoted here by conductor Stephen Rice, the work is reminiscent of Dufay (d.1474). It is now believed that Josquin was a choirboy in Cambrai and we know that Dufay worked there during the 1460s. Perhaps Dufay was then Josquin’s first teacher; what a link that would be. We are though fairly certain that Josquin had been a pupil of sorts, at least, of Ockeghem.

The disc starts with a bright and breezy motet Mittit ad virgenem, which may not be by Josquin, but if it is, then it is probably one of his earliest works. Stephen Rice in his extensive, quite analytical, but fascinating, notes has allowed himself to be strongly informed by research by David Fallows several other scholars resulting in an unusual bibliography of works cited in the CD booklet. A brief search for these books and articles, however, will prove that they are not always easy to get hold of and might be quite expensive. Back in 1980, the so-called ‘New Grove’, in a publication entitled ‘High Renaissance Masters’, compiled entries on five composers, the first of which was written by Gustave Reese and Jeremy Noble about Josquin. They do make the comment that ‘no written records are known to survive regarding Josquin’s family or schooling’, but scholarship has moved on and this motet cannot have appeared ‘out of the blue’, as it fully mature and impressive.

The problem with Usquequo Domine, oblivisceris me? (Psalm 12) concerns the duet sections in the second part, which in the original, demonstrate some oddly weak counterpoint. Leeman Perkins has rewritten these sections and they seem to work but they are not by Josquin as far as we can tell. For what it’s worth, my personal instinct is that this restrained setting just does not feel or sound like Josquin.

Also of questionable attribution is a setting of Psalm 6 Domine, ne in furore tuo which, it seems, smacks a little of the 1530’s. Perhaps we should be shouting, ‘Will the real Josquin des Prez please stand up?’, and when he does, we find yet more complications. The technique or tradition known as ‘si placat’ was not uncommon in the early Renaissance; this was adding a voice to an already completed work, perhaps even two. Huc me sydereo is recorded in its six-part version. It is certainly rich and harmonically more ‘modern’ than you might expect. In the better-known Stabat Mater, one voice was added as late as 1580 or even later, according to the manuscript used here. But who added these parts? In some cases, was it Josquin, or a very skilled pupil? Did Josquin even write some of these works at all? Looking through his work list, even after several controversial years of pruning, it seems extensive even for the long-lived Josquin. In O bone et dulcissime Jesu found in a Munich manuscript of 1550 the two added parts it seems, are also possibly not by Josquin. Joshua Rifkin has raised such doubts, saying, ‘I wish to question whether we even have anything that … we can properly label a Josquin canon’. Perhaps this disc should have been headed something like ‘The Questionable Josquin’. It’s also worth adding that the little-known figure, highly respected in his time, Mathurin Forestier (b.c.1470) always uses Josquin’s work as a musical point of departure, e.g., in his Missa Baises moy but we have only nine works attributed to him.

Just as an aside, I remember that a few years ago I attended a lecture in Stratford-on-Avon by an American, who should remain nameless, who, like others, is quite convinced that Shakespeare did not write any of thirty-six or so plays attributed to him. This is what can happen to the reputations of great artists.

Of the other works, Homo quidam fecit coenam magnum has typical Josquin canonic writing. Curiously, John Milsom for several years considered it not to be by Josquin but has now retracted. It is an unusually structured motet, however. The Gloria de beata virgine is a complex work with several tropes, which are contrastingly textured, and the disc ends with the brief Sanctus de Passione, which includes not only the Benedictus but also two other interpolated lines set homophonically.

It’s worth saying, that despite these questionable attributions, there is some wonderful music here. I’ve been a fan of the Brabant Ensemble for some time and can confidently say that this is one of their most outstanding recordings. That means, for me, clear diction, a bright uncomplicated sound, ideal balance, voices recorded with space around them and not at a social distance, and a focused, fresh tone. Tempi are also sensible and firm. I have already remarked on how detailed the booklet essay is, but you will need a magnifier to read it if you are of a certain age. All texts are provided and well translated and each motet is allotted two tracks.