Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Saturday, 9 October 2010

Josquin Desprez Messes de l'Homme armé

Josquin Desprez: Messes de l'Homme armé:
super voces musicales [34:56]
sexti toni [30:31]
Maurice Bourbon – conductor
Calliope CAL9441 [66:11]

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Josquin's l'Homme armé masses are among his most popular works, and with good reason. They display his full array of contrapuntal devices from simple conic imitation to the most complex of mensural elongations and even retrograde and inversion processes. But just as importantly, they wear their learning lightly, and on first listening the overriding impression is of the sheer variety of contrapuntal textures employed.

The vocal group Métamorphoses sensibly allow the music to speak for itself much of the time. Their performances are unfussy and rarely indulge in extreme tempos of dynamic contrasts simply for the sake of variety. Tempos are generally on the brisk side, giving the imitative processes priority over the clarity of the contrapuntal textures.

In common with many Josquin recordings of recent years, and I'm thinking particularly of the excellent releases by Ensemble Clément Janequin, the choir here consists entirely of mature male voices. This is made possible by transposing each of the movements down by an interval determined by the modality. I don't quite understand this myself, but it is a practice that seems to be supported by the relevant scholarship. In terms of recording, it is something that has only really become practical in recent years, as the clarity of sound required to pick out the individual lines in these lower registers has only been with us for a decade or so.

There is an interesting variety of vocal timbres in the choir; the tone from the basses is rich without being overpowering, while the countertenors sound curiously effeminate. None of this compromises the integrity of the choral sound though, if anything it serves to distinguish the contrapuntal lines. Having said that, there are times where the clarity is slightly compromised. The lower pitch is perhaps to blame, and the acoustic, while it is usually just resonant enough, can tip over into a slight blur in some of the louder homogeneous textures. It's a small point, but it is what puts the Clément Janequin recordings a step ahead of these.

Josquin himself has his own solution to the problem, and one of the most attractive aspects of these two masses is the way that the textures often reduce to simple imitative processes. These afford the music an impressive clarity and are the sections that benefit most from the brisk tempos and linear focus of the choir. Some of the mensural canons are also impressively clear, those sections where different voices are singing the same material at different speeds. The performers are obviously intent on ensuring that the slower voices maintain the integrity of their phrasing. The security that this affords the overall texture is excellent, although the clarity of the faster voices can suffer.

I assume that there is little consensus among scholars about the speed at which this music should be performed. It is probably the case that most opinions are based on the practical experiences of singers working out for themselves how a phrase can fit comfortably into a breath. Nevertheless, the briskness of many of these movements smacks of a certain revisionist agenda. But for music that has been continuously popular for well over 500 years, we can expect a certain amount of variety in performing traditions, of which this is only one. To my ear, the low pitch at which this is sung is an excellent decision, giving the music a real richness. However, it brings problems with it, not least the requirement to prioritise clarity of line in every single texture. The choir here don't always manage that, but when they do the results are insightful and profound.
Gavin Dixon

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