What is it about the music of Josquin that caused his renaissance contemporaries, as well as succeeding generations, to hold him in such awe? And why is it that listeners are still captivated today, and strong men and women go weak at the knees when they hear his music? Some possible reasons are touched upon in the notes accompanying this disc - but far more importantly, by both the choice of works and the manner of their performance, this recording makes a fair attempt to bring us some answers to these questions.
The Freiburg-based Dufay Ensemble come well equipped to perform such a task, having already recorded four superb CDs of the works of Jacobus Vaet as well as a disc of Josquin's "Missa Ave maris stella" and some motets. An all-male group consisting of alto, countertenor, two tenors, barytone and two basses - one of whom, Eckehard Kiem, directs the ensemble - their individually distinctive voices form a finely blended texture that is eminently suited to this repertory. Not only this, but they sing with insight, dignity and passion.
These qualities are immediately evident in the anguished opening chords of the first work in the programme, Josquin's "Stabat Mater". This is an absolutely beautiful work, here sung with both heartfelt expression and a sonority of the very highest quality. The other works on the disc are equally fine; highlights for me include the often-performed "Déploration: Nymphes des bois", the composer's profoundly felt lament on the death of his teacher Johannes Ockeghem evoking an atmosphere of overwhelming sadness. Then there is the glorious six-voice motet "Benedicta es, caelorum regina", a work of extraordinary richness of line and texture; it too receives a stunning performance here, with Josquin's sequence of eight chords, forming the cadence at the end of the first part to the words "Ave plena gratia", coming as close to perfection as I can imagine. The concluding item on the disc, "Miserere mei Deus", is again a profound and mesmerising work, this moving rendition by the Dufay Ensemble leaving the listener feeling not downcast, as the title might suggest, but comforted.
So, returning to the question at the beginning, this programme of Josquin works from the Dufay Ensemble offers us a marvellous demonstration of the composer's unique qualities. His polyphony is intellectually profound, yet still clearly accessible to us ordinary mortals; his extended, arching, complex melodies, like those of Bach, Beethoven and Wagner after him, are distinctive and memorable; and, in view of the type and purpose of the music he was writing, it is expressive of the texts and of the emotions within them in a way that was entirely original in his time and which brought new expressive possibilities to the art of music, and so to that of subsequent generations.
But beware of the booklet, attractively presented though it is. Eckehard Kiem's notes on the composer and his music are excellent, but their translation into English is in places faulty and, in the final paragraph, just plain wrong. I'll give a corrected version of that short passage at the end of this review. Also, somebody mixed up the printed text in the second and third parts of "Benedicta es", with the result that two lines from part 3 end up in the middle of part 2, and so part 3 begins with the wrong lines; meanwhile, the English and German translations of these two lines have vanished altogether. The track listings then repeat the error by showing the wrong title for part 3. Again, for the convenience of prospective buyers, I'll show the correct version of parts 2 and 3 below. But I must stress that these comments refer only to the printed booklet, and certainly not to the actual recorded performances: the Dufay Ensemble know better than to get their words mixed up!
However, these are very minor complaints considering what treasures this CD has to offer. If you don't already know the music of Josquin, this would be a great place to start; and if you do, I would still bet that you won't have heard anything much better than this. It is a finely judged selection of his works offering an intense musical experience that leaves us, like the composer's contemporaries, in awe of his extraordinary genius. What is more, these works are presented to us beautifully recorded by Ars Musici's engineers and, above all, in magnificent interpretations that take us to the very heart of "the incomparable Josquin".
(Note 1: last para of programme notes should read something like this: "Language-based feeling and contrapuntal virtuosity, perfect balance of sound and line, depth of expression and inherent grasp of overall structure - in Psalm 50 we see Josquin at the height of his mastery, in which he would be much emulated by the generations of composers of the next hundred years, but never surpassed.")
(Note 2: text of "Benedicta es" - Secunda pars: "Per illud Ave prolatum / Et tuum responsum gratum / Est ex te verbum incarnatum, / Quo salvantur omnia." Tertia pars: "Nunc Mater exora natum / Ut nostrum tollat reatum, / Et regnum det nobis paratum / In caelesti patria. / Amen.")