Josquin Desprez Masses

Author: 
David Fallows

Josquin Desprez Masses - The Tallis Scholars

  • Missa, 'Pange lingua'
  • Missa, 'La sol fa re mi'

This is absolutely superb. You need only compare the new performance of the Mass Pange lingua with the Ensemble Clement Janequin LP (Harmonia Mundi) on which I heaped such superlatives last November to see how the eight singers of the Tallis Scholars are better in virtually all respects. The details are cleaner, the rhythms are more elegantly taken, the musical text they use is better (following, I think, mainly the early Vatican manuscript, CS16, whereas the French group basically seem to follow a slightly garbled German print of 1539), and the broad unfolding of the musical rhetoric is beautifully controlled by Peter Phillips. We must accept, of course, that Josquin is unlikely to have heard this music with two ladies on the top line, but they do it so well that only a fundamentalist would mark the record down for that. It should also be said that the least successful performance on the entire disc is in the opening Kyrie of this Mass where there is a certain brutality in the approach; and although the Tallis Scholars make more of the ''Benedictus'' and the last Agnus Dei than the French singers, there may still be better ways of doing it. On the other hand, as just one example among many, these seem to be the first musicians to make the ''Osanna'' truly successful and understand why Josquin should have chosen to compose it that way.
But actually they sing even better in the Mass La sol fa re mi. It is almost as though they recorded the works in the order in which they appear on the record and some special understanding of the music came to them in the course of the sessions. Again and again in the singing one has the feeling that Josquin's lines are projected with an understanding and clarity that have rarely been heard before.
This is a Mass that performers and record companies have tended to avoid, because on paper it looks as though it couldn't possibly work. The La sol fa re mi of the title denotes (among other things) the melodic passage which appears over 200 times in the course of the work with its intervals unchanged—which may not seem a recipe for the kind of music one would want to hear. But Josquin treats his material with such astonishing sophistication that you are rarely aware of the melodic fragment as such; and Phillips is scrupulously careful never to emphasize the melody except in places—such as the end of the second ''Osanna''—where it is clearly intended to work as an ostinato. This performance shows that the Mass La sol fa re mi belongs with the greatest works of its era.
Until now the Tallis Scholars have concentrated on somewhat later music. I very much hope that they will devote more of their future energies to this earlier repertory to which they seem so well suited. Over the past 12 months there has been a surprising resurgence of interest in Josquin's music, constituting something of an annus mirabilis in his career on record: this seems much the best so far.'

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