Josquin des Prez Masses: Malheur Me Bat, Fortuna Desperata Review

Released 2009.  

BBC Review

Showcases the extraordinary complexity of Josquin's writing

Charlotte Gardner 2009

The Tallis Scholars have made it their mission to record all sixteen (or so) of Josquin des Près's masses. Their performance on this fourth disc in the cycle showcases the extraordinary complexity of Josquin's writing, whilst imbuing it with human warmth.

Josquin des Pres was a French-Flemish composer who lived roughly between 1440 and 1521. Despite only writing choral music, his influence on the development of musical form was enormous. He was one of the first composers to use secular tunes as the basis for his religious works but, more importantly, he pioneered imitative devices between vocal parts which were then, and indeed now, frankly mind-boggling in their quasi-mathematical complexity. If JS Bach had played the 'which historical figure would you like to have dinner with?' game, he may well have opted for a geeky part-writing conversation with Josquin. The two masses on this disc are based on three-part chansons, or popular songs, of the day. Before Josquin, composers would have taken just one of the original voice parts from which to derive their own work's musical motifs. Josquin, however, plundered all three parts, instantly tripling the musical material and complexity. You'd need a score and time to spare if you wanted to properly unpick these masterpieces of construction, but the intrinsic loveliness of the music, aided by the Tallis Scholars' performance here, render such scholarship unnecessary either for musical enjoyment or intellectual appreciation. The choir’s lucid vocal textures highlight the mastery of Josquin's interweaving vocal lines. Their tone is clear and sonorous, the phrases are beautifully shaped, and the mood solemn but warm. I do have a problem, however, with the programme notes; despite being genuinely interesting and engaging, they round off a comparison between Josquin and Beethoven with a smug, ''the average music-lover will take the point''. Now if that irritates me, then where does it leave the ninety-something percent of the population without specialist musical knowledge? Alienated, I suspect.

So, a marvellous recording, but wait until you've heard and enjoyed it before attacking (quite literally, perhaps) the programme notes.

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