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on 29 October 2011
to hear how the Westminster Cathedral Choir, with a gaggle of pre-pubescent boys among its members, has a better feel for this music than any number of "specialist" ensembles. But first a word about the pieces selected for this recording.

All the works on this disk are safely attributed to Josquin, are written for his favorite ATTB disposition of voices, and must be ranked among his very best music. The Missa Pange Lingua, written towards the end of Josquin's life, takes virtually all of its Phrygian-mode melodic material directly from its namesake hymn. And although the mass is organised around imitation between voices, it has none of the recondite canons which characterize some of Josquin's earlier work (e.g. the two "Homme Arme" masses). Instead, here Josquin concentrates on repeating and manipulating his motivic cells, expanding and contracting his phrases, and changing the number of beats between a phrase's appearance in one voice and its imitation in another, all in order to increase the tension leading up to the key points in the work. In one characteristic two-voice example in the Sanctus, Josquin has a thrice-repeated 5-minim motif imitated at a two-minim delay in the lower voice; this "ostinato" then suddenly mutates into a 7-minim motif, which while being imitated in "stretto" after 1 minim in the lower voice, gradually contracts to 6 and then finally back to 5 minims before a cadence puts things back on a normal footing. The incredible thing is how natural this music sounds, even with (or perhaps because of) its complete freedom from the barline. This is the music which made Luther say of Josquin that he was "Master of the notes, which must do as he wills. As for other composers, they must do as the notes will." These techniques make Josquin's music infinitely more exciting than the music of most of his contemporaries; the closest thing to this in more recent tonal music is in some of Brahms' late work, e.g. the 1st movement of the F Minor Clarinet Sonata.

The motet Planxit Autem David is thought to be a work from the middle of Josquin's career (around 1500) and sets David's lament for Saul and Jonathan from II Samuel. Here Josquin mixes imitative and homophonic textures in the service of the tragic text. The result is strange to our modern ears because Josquin has written this lament in F, theoretically in the Lydian mode but with so many B flats that to our ears it sounds for all the world like F major. This was apparently not an atypical "key" for laments in Josquin's time. The cycle Vultum Tuum is thought to be from the early part of Josquin's career, and is comprised of 9 short motets that could be sung to accompany key moments in the celebration of the mass.

Now for the performance. There is ample evidence that in Josquin's lifetime, his music was performed by both small ensembles - probably with one voice taking each part - and by larger choirs on more important occasions. And yet, I have seen another reviewer on this site dismiss this recording out of hand simply because it was made by a CHOIR. Let's briefly look at the reasons why it has become so fashionable of late to sing the works of Ockeghem, Josquin, and De La Rue with one voice on each part.

First of all, late medieval sacred polyphony, even when written for 4 parts and not 3,5, or 6 parts (also common arrangements), was normally "scored" for ATTB just like the music on this disk. The only high part was taken by falsettists or boys, the other three parts sitting comfortably within the typical ranges of adult male singers. This creates obvious problems for modern mixed choirs, designed to sing works written for SATB with a more or less equal distance between parts. And second, the works of Josquin and his contemporaries are devilishly difficult to sing in tune without accompaniment. A select group of good professional singers, with one singer on each part, can get this music to sound reasonably well in tune in a reasonably short time, after which they can start to work on their phrasing etc. Multiplying the number of performers on each part, however, exponentially increases the difficulty of achieving good intonation in this repertoire. Even if a choir can get to the point where they are singing this music in tune, they will still have to spend valuable time coordinating their entries and diction before they can start to work on turning the score into music. (One best-selling English mixed choir manages to achieve both good tuning AND precise entries with multiple singers on each part, but are so exhausted by the effort that they then neglect to add phrasing or any other kind of expressive nuance to their readings of these works.) So I can understand why many people will prefer an in-tune, clearly phrased OVPP performance in this repertoire - even if the resulting sound is thin and lacking in contrasts - to an out-of-tune, mushy performance by a choir.

But when a larger choir is really good enough to overcome these problems, the results can be ravishing, as they are on this disk by the Westminster Cathedral Choir. In the Missa Pange Lingua, director James O'Donnell has gone with soloists for the intimate duos and trios, and full forces for the grander bits. The half dozen (?) boys who take the superius part here were obviously singing 16th century polyphony before they could walk. Nothing else could possibly explain their perfect intonation, purity of tone, or sensitivity in phrasing. The men who take the two tenor parts and the bass are just as good, and I think the result is one of the best disks of late Medieval music ever made. O'Donnell's crack choir and the lush acoustic of Westminster Cathedral allow him to direct the contemplative bits of these pieces at a suitably relaxed pace, and the more exuberant bits - like the Hosanna of the mass - at a suitably energetic pace. There is none of the bumpy, disjointed phrasing typical of some English OVPP groups, and the tone is surprisingly well balanced and clear, with every part audible within the whole. O'Donnell uses all the gradations of force at his disposal, from a pair of soloists to the sound of the full choir, to give the mass distinct contours and to reinforce the characteristic high points of Josquin's polyphony.

This 74-minute-long disk has been reissued as part of Hyperion's budget "Helios" series of recordings.
0Comment|4 people found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you?YesNoReport abuse
on 29 October 2011
to hear how the Westminster Cathedral Choir, with a gaggle of pre-pubescent boys among its members, has a better feel for this music than any number of "specialist" ensembles. But first a word about the pieces selected for this recording.

All the works on this disk are safely attributed to Josquin, are written for his favorite ATTB disposition of voices, and must be ranked among his very best music. The Missa Pange Lingua, written towards the end of Josquin's life, takes virtually all of its Phrygian-mode melodic material directly from its namesake hymn. And although the mass is organised around imitation between voices, it has none of the recondite canons which characterize some of Josquin's earlier work (e.g. the two "Homme Arme" masses). Instead, here Josquin concentrates on repeating and manipulating his motivic cells, expanding and contracting his phrases, and changing the number of beats between a phrase's appearance in one voice and its imitation in another, all in order to increase the tension leading up to the key points in the work. In one characteristic two-voice example in the Sanctus, Josquin has a thrice-repeated 5-minim motif imitated at a two-minim delay in the lower voice; this "ostinato" then suddenly mutates into a 7-minim motif, which while being imitated in "stretto" after 1 minim in the lower voice, gradually contracts to 6 and then finally back to 5 minims before a cadence puts things back on a normal footing. The incredible thing is how natural this music sounds, in spite of (or perhaps because of) its complete freedom from the barline. This is the music which made Luther say of Josquin that he was "Master of the notes, which must do as he wills. As for other composers, they must do as the notes will." These techniques make Josquin's music infinitely more exciting than the music of most of his contemporaries; the closest thing to this in more recent tonal music is in some of Brahms' late work, e.g. the 1st movement of the F Minor Clarinet Sonata.

The motet Planxit Autem David is thought to be a work from the middle of Josquin's career (around 1500) and sets David's lament for Saul and Jonathan from II Samuel. Here Josquin mixes imitative and homophonic textures in the service of the tragic text. The result is strange to our modern ears because Josquin has written this lament in F, theoretically in the Lydian mode but with so many B flats that to our ears it sounds for all the world like F major. This was apparently not an atypical "key" for laments in Josquin's time. The cycle Vultum Tuum is thought to be from the early part of Josquin's career, and is comprised of 9 short motets that could be sung to accompany key moments in the celebration of the mass.

Now for the performance. There is ample evidence that in Josquin's lifetime, his music was performed by both small ensembles - probably with one voice taking each part - and by larger choirs on more important occasions. And yet, I have seen a review on this site which dismisses this recording out of hand simply because it was made by a CHOIR. Let's briefly look at the reasons why it has become so fashionable of late to sing the works of Ockeghem, Josquin, and De La Rue with one voice on each part.

First of all, late medieval sacred polyphony, even when written for 4 parts and not 3,5, or 6 parts (also common arrangements), was normally "scored" for ATTB just like the music on this disk. The only high part was taken by falsettists or boys, the other three parts sitting comfortably within the typical ranges of adult male singers. This creates obvious problems for modern mixed choirs, designed to sing works written for SATB with a more or less equal distance between parts. And second, the works of Josquin and his contemporaries are devilishly difficult to sing in tune without accompaniment. A select group of good professional singers, with one singer on each part, can get this music to sound reasonably well in tune in a reasonably short time, after which they can start to work on their phrasing etc. Multiplying the number of performers on each part, however, exponentially increases the difficulty of achieving good intonation in this repertoire. Even if a choir can get to the point where they are singing this music in tune, they will still have to spend valuable time coordinating their entries and diction before they can start to work on turning the score into music. (One best-selling English mixed choir manages to achieve both good tuning AND precise entries with multiple singers on each part, but are so exhausted by the effort that they then neglect to add phrasing or any other kind of expressive nuance to their readings of these works.) So I can understand why many people will prefer an in-tune, clearly phrased OVPP performance in this repertoire - even if the resulting sound is thin and lacking in contrasts - to an out-of-tune, mushy performance by a choir.

But when a larger choir is really good enough to overcome these handicaps, the results can be ravishing, as they are on this disk by the Westminster Cathedral Choir. For the Missa Pange Lingua, director James O'Donnell uses soloists for the intimate duos and trios, and full forces for the grander bits. The half dozen (?) boys who take the superius part here were obviously singing 16th century polyphony before they could walk. Nothing else could possibly explain their perfect intonation, purity of tone, or sensitivity in phrasing. The men are just as good, and I think the result is one of the best disks of late Medieval music ever made. O'Donnell's crack choir and the lush acoustic of Westminster Cathedral allow him to direct the contemplative bits of these pieces at a suitably relaxed pace, and the more exuberant bits - like the Hosanna of the mass - at a suitably energetic pace. There is none of the bumpy, disjointed phrasing typical of some English OVPP groups, and the tone is surprisingly well balanced and clear, with every part audible within the whole. O'Donnell uses all the gradations of force at his disposal, from a pair of soloists to the sound of the full choir, to give the mass distinct contours and to reinforce the characteristic high points of Josquin's polyphony.

This 74-minute-long disk has been reissued as part of Hyperion's budget "Helios" series of recordings.
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on 27 March 2016
very good
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Josquin is one of my favourite composers - I'll snap up just about any recording I can get my hands on, and did so with this re-release of the Westminster Cathedral Choir's Missa "Pange Lingua" and motets.

It's not clear just how many voices per part are employed in these performances, but it is clearly quite a significant number. I'm really not so keen on these "massed choir" approaches, and I also have a preference for adult choirs rather than the use of trebles as is presumably the case here. It's a bit of a let down compared to most of the Josquin recordings I have.

For the Missa "Pange Lingua" specifically, there are several good recordings, for example:

As part of a double disc set - Tallis Scholars Sing Josquin
With plainchant Propers for a complete mass - Josquin Desprez: Missa Pange lingua - Ensemble Clément Janequin / Ensemble Organum / Pérès
Along with some motets - Missa Pange Lingua

The "Vultum tuum deprecabuntur" motet cycle has probably been done best by the Orlando Consort on their stunning disc Josquin Desprez - Motets.
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