An Epic, Hauntingly Resonant Achievement by One of the World’s Great Choirs
Last year, the Tallis Scholars released the thrilling final chapter in their epic recording of the complete masses of Josquin des Pres. It took the world’s most highly acclaimed Renaissance choral ensemble thirty-four years to complete the cycle. The sense of triumph in group founder Peter Phillips’ liner notes to the final album – streaming at Spotify – is visceral:
“When we started recording Josquin in 1986 there was no intention to launch a series; but slowly I began to understand that with his eighteen Masses – a just about manageable number for a single recording project – my principle would still be respected, simply because Josquin refused to do the same thing twice. Like Beethoven in his symphonies, Josquin used basically the same line-up of performers to create dramatically individual sound-worlds every time he wrote for them. I realised that every album could indeed be an event, and that the complete set – if we ever managed to finish it – would be a major event. Like exploring Beethoven’s symphonies, the differing sound-worlds inherent in Josquin’s handling of his chosen medium were there for the taking: it was our task to find them. It has been a search which at times has proved extremely taxing, not least because of Josquin’s crazily wide voice-ranges. But it has defined the career of The Tallis Scholars.”
Where was this major event celebrated? It wasn’t. The Tallis Scholars completed their first US tour in eons a couple of years ago…but that was before the lockdowners rebranded a seasonal flu as the apocalypse, and used it as a pretext for criminalizing live music in most parts of the world. For now, as more and more of the world breaks free of the lockdown, we have this album to inspire us while we look forward to returning to normal.
The blend of voices here is characteristically celestial. There’s been plenty of turnover in the choir since they first took the stage almost fifty years ago; the current lineup features a cast as strong as ever. There are three pieces here, each of them dating from around 1500. There’s one written for the Duke of Ferrara in Italy, as well as the Missa D’ung aultre amer, and the Missa Faysant Regretz. That latter title may remind you of a Cole Porter song; it’s actually a requiem of sorts. This music is state-of-the-art for its time, foreshadowing the counterpoint and the devious mathematics of Bach.
Each is a radically different setting of a liturgical theme. Few if any of the robber barons of the Middle Ages were religious, but they paid lip service to it since it helped keep the peasants in line…and provided a convenient excuse to throw a party. In the first mass, Josquin cleverly uses musical code to weave a local dictator’s name into the music, a European counterpart to what the praise singers of sub-Saharan Africa were doing for the tyrants in their part of the world.
There’s well over an hour’s worth of music here. Baritones resound, sopranos soar and intertwine, often ranging from stark to lush and back in the course of less than a couple of minutes. This is most noticeable in the second mass, composed of very brief segments. The Amen section of the Missa Faysant Regretz will give you chills, and the effect lingers through successive interludes. The way the composer uses the simplest riffs to build increasingly complex webs will entrance you…literally. And the echo effects, and dynamic shifts will lift you out of your reverie in appreciation of how talented musicians and composers managed to transcend the restrictions of an earlier era, one which more and more eerily has come to resemble our own.