How appropriate that the name of Hercules should be invoked in this disc, which represents the conclusion of a truly Herculean labour of love: the recording of all 18 Masses attributed to Josquin over nine discs, taking 34 years to complete.
This massive undertaking, completed in time for the 500th anniversary of Josquin’s death in 2021, seems, at first blush, an unusual project for The Tallis Scholars to have undertaken. Yet, these champions of high Renaissance music, boasting a refulgent high soprano line, were guided by their founder, Peter Phillips to explore the music of this earlier master after the success of their award-winning 1987 disc of the Missa Pange Lingua and the Missa La sol fa re mi.
Phillips describes Josquin as “a genius who felt challenged to make each setting different” and all nine discs of this cycle bear witness to the composer’s astonishing stylistic variety. Such variety has had implications about performance pitches and other stylistic matters, but Phillips readily admits that “authenticity” is unachievable, not least because modern voices are not produced the same way they were half a millennium ago. What matters is cogent, musical communication, and that is certainly abundant in this latest release which features three quite different masterpieces.
The Hercules that headlines this final Josquin offering is not the Roman god, but Josquin’s patron, Ercole I d’Este of Ferrara, a man who Phillips quips “liked to hear his name sung obviously and often”. Needless to say, the composer obliged, creating a simple motive based on the duke’s name, around which he wove some extraordinary counterpoint. Starting with almost innocuous simplicity, the Missa Hercule Dux Ferrarie becomes increasingly intriguing; the final section of the Agnus Dei flowering into six parts and yielding some gloriously transcendent music.
Based on a three-voice rondeau by either Walter Frye or Gilles Binchois, the Missa Faysant regretz also uses a short, repeated motive that is surrounded for the most by denser polyphony. The exuberant conclusion to the Credo confirms Josquin’s compositional mastery; being able to make so much out of small, simple musical cells.
The same mastery is evident in the Missa D’ung aultre amer. Using a chanson from his revered master Ockeghem, Josquin may have fashioned a relatively brief Mass, but it is one in which the composer’s breadth of experience and stylistic creativity shine out. In the Ambrosian tradition, a motet, Tu solus qui facis, is substituted for the Benedictus. Its solemn, chordal simplicity is utterly disarming. Elsewhere, the Mass radiates energetic conviction, whether in the shorter, chordal movements or in the more expansive Kyrie, Sanctus and Agnus Dei.
Coming to the end of this absolutely remarkable odyssey, the listener can only be filled with admiration for Phillips’ vision and the enormous flexibility of The Tallis Scholars, who for nearly half a century have maintained their unchanging commitment to vocal and musical excellence. Having completed the crowning glory of these Herculean labours, what could possibly come next?
Works: Masses Hercules Dux Ferrarie, D’ung aultre amer, Faysant regretz
Performers: The Tallis Scholars/Peter Phillips
Label: Gimell CDGIM051