This CD of Josquin's "L'Homme ArmE" masses - "Super Voces Musicales" and "Sexti Toni" - by the Ensemble Metamorphoses, a group of 9 male singers based in the Lille/Calais region, is the third recording in a (projected) complete series of Josquin's masses. Each CD tries to connect Josquin to one particular European city; In 2007 came "Josquin & Venise" with the Masses "Mater Patris" and "di Dadi", and in 2008 came "Josquin & Cambrai" with the Mass "Ad Fugam". I have not heard either of those two disks, and probably never will, as none of the three "Josquin masses" on them can be securely attributed to Josquin. But it's definitely worth the trouble to track down this 3rd disk ("Josquin & Rome") featuring the two (safely attributed) "L'Homme ArmE" masses.(For more information on these disks, google "La Chapelle des Flandres".)
These two masses are treacherous for performers and listeners alike. They are shockingly difficult to sing in tune, especially "Super Voces Musicales" where the "key" of the Cantus Firmus rises by a second in each of the work's successive "movements," effectively contradicting the "key" of the counterpoint around it, which remains in D throughout. And as these masses are really written for ATTB rather than SATB, traditional mixed choirs quite understandably shy away from them. Nor is it easy to pull off a good one-voice-per-part performance of them, since it is almost impossible for one singer to convincingly sustain the Cantus Firmi that are so frequent in these pieces, and I suspect that the breakneck speed at which some "OVPP" groups plow through this repertoire is an attempt to overcome this problem. The listener, meanwhile, gets assaulted by a myriad of Josquin's cheekiest contrapuntal tricks, including a 3-part mensuration canon in the Agnus II of "Super Voces Musicales" and a retrograde canon of the full "Homme ArmE" tune in the Agnus III of "Sexti Toni".
The boys of Ensemble Metamorphoses do a brilliant job of navigating these tricky waters. Their director, Maurice Bourbon, has made what I believe are all the right interpretive decisions in these pieces. His - or the group's - application of musica ficta, for example, is much more convincing than the Tallis Scholars' / Peter Phillips' musica ficta in the same pieces. (I think Phillips tends to base his decisions regarding musica ficta on harmonic considerations -something that 16th-century singers could never have done, since they never read from a score. And I also think Phillips applies musica ficta too infrequently in Josquin's cadential formulas, perhaps in an attempt to make the music sound more modal and "archaic". Something along these lines was said long ago in an authoritative review of the Tallis Scholars' recording of Brumel's 12-part "Earthquake Mass.")
This disk was recorded in a church in Lozere with a lovely warm acoustic, neither too dry nor too echo-friendly. The Ensemble sings one-voice-per-part in the more intimate sections of the masses, and full strength when more grandeur is in order. Tempi are generally quicker than the Tallis Scholars' but slower than those of A Sei Voci or Pro Cantione Antiqua, and seem pretty well-gauged for the given forces and acoustic. There is a fair difference between the Ensemble's "slow" and "fast" sections, and they will even accelerate WITHIN a section, e.g. the Et Incarnatus Est of the Credo in "Super Voces Musicales," where the ascension is (logically?) quicker than the incarnation was.
The intonation here is not as pure as the Tallis Scholars' was in their 1989 recording of these masses - let's just go ahead and accept that nobody's ever has been or will be - but the Ensemble's tuning is very good nonetheless, and unlike the Tallis Scholars, the Ensemble Metamorphoses boys think that these masses are music. They have no fear of singing very softly at some times and very loudly at others. They have an impressive sense of where the climax of each section of music should be, and go on to treat the subsequent "denouements" with a delicacy which, quite frankly, seems to have never occurred to some other groups who have recorded these masses. The Ensemble's countertenors sing cleanly and naturally, without the reedy tone produced by some British falsettists, and the group as a whole blends its voices as well as can reasonably be expected in Josquin's compact but knotty texture. The Ensemble very consciously (and rightly) constructs its sound from the tenor outwards, rather than from the top voice downwards (cf. the Tallis Scholars).
This tenor-first conception of Josquin's texture, in combination with the Ensemble's exemplary phrasing, makes fragments of the Homme ArmE tune audible at all of their assorted speeds. The group's phrasing, in fact, is so sensitive that I think you might just about notice the mensuration canons in the Benedictus and Agnus II of "Super Voces Musicales" without seeing them in the score. That, I suppose, is the real measure of how good this CD is. This ensemble has put so much expression and life into their interpretation, that they have (paradoxically?) highlighted some of Josquin's most ridiculously "intellectual" exploits.
The English/French liner notes are detailed and informative, if a bit pretentious. My only regret about this issue is that the original Homme ArmE tune is neither recorded on the CD nor even printed for us in the liner notes, meaning that in order to appreciate Josquin's use of the tune, you will need to find it elsewhere (e.g. Wikipedia).