Josquin: Masses (Tallis Scholars)

Josquin: Masses (full series)
The Tallis Scholars - Peter Phillips
Gimell 039 (2008)
Gimell 042 (2009)
Gimell 044 (2011)
Gimell 048 (2016)
Gimell 050 (2018)
Gimell 051 (2020)
Gimell 052 (2019)

Although motets were often Josquin's most historically praised pieces, including in twentieth century scholarship, the mass cycles are also individually distinctive (despite their generally common texts), and at this point, seem to present a relatively "curated" selection within his oeuvre. In other words, he seems to have been writing these pieces for posterity (& they did lead off music publishing with Petrucci...), and so chronologies are difficult in part because they were revised at different times. Or perhaps not, as Josquin's career remains mysterious in various ways.... In any case, though, these cycles can be very different, addressing different traditions within the history of mass composition — or (at least prospectively) creating others. And in the past, writers have chosen to emphasize e.g. the plainchant-based austerity of some of the late masses, that direction having marked continuity into the Counter-Reformation, but it doesn't appear at this point that Josquin really had such a singular focus. Rather, he did write some more austere & chiseled cycles around plainchant, but he also wrote a variety of other settings, a selection spanning his influences & inspirations. And he was indeed apparently trying to "make a statement" in most of these individual works.

And these Tallis Scholars readings of the complete masses — complete per at least some scholarly consensus, not without its disagreements — have been the most prominent here in the early 21st century. However, I must immediately disclaim the first two issues from the 1980s, as not being worthwhile! (These albums adopt outdated & eccentric approaches to the music. It's a mystery why Phillips didn't re-record these cycles in his 21st century survey.... I've also declined to link them above.) And there're still comments out there, including some apparently originating with me decades ago, that do cast doubts on the Tallis Scholars series as a whole, based on those earlier performance decisions. I also want to wave off those associations: The later recordings, starting with that of the Missa Sine nomine (which was named my EM Record of the Year for 2008, i.e. more than twenty years after the first release...), all offer strong readings, albeit some more compelling than others.

(I should probably also state clearly that I've combined these separate album releases into one file here, both for the purposes of a more compact presentation on the main page, and so as to facilitate a more general discussion in this space. As of this writing, there's no "box set" release of the series available, though. Moreover, there're generally no recording dates given, so it's possible that these albums were recorded closer to the same time, and not so much recently. I don't know, although the later interpretations do become richer in details, not that that necessarily suggests a number of years in between.... There's also the issue of inserting so many track breaks into these cycles, which can make them cumbersome to add to a playlist. The additional information implied with the latter might be appealing to some listeners, I suppose, but the lack of documentary chronological information will always seem to be a flaw in these productions for me. I've noted the year of release for each individual album above, though.... And finally, in the quirks department, there're the enforced silences to open the albums: This seems like pure vanity.)

But the Tallis Scholars renditions are generally extrovert readings, and emphasize clarity. Indeed, the latter is the main feature here, with the group having taken the most time & effort (at least to these ears...) to bring out the most details in these masses: Josquin's writing, in most of his cycles, is full of a variety of filigree detail, i.e. ubiquitous in the kind of "connecting tissue" that makes up the "musical stuff" of the movements — and which Josquin infuses with a variety of reinforcing connections & provocations. As noted, the genesis of some of these masses appears (or so I'm now suggesting...) to have occurred over decades, and the level of incremental detail is consequently large. Every reading seems to turn over more connections & small musical delights, and the Tallis Scholars under Phillips are simply the farthest along in this process, hence producing the most detailed readings of these masses, particularly in their later albums. E.g. rhythm & tempo relations are also rendered clearly & precisely: The group has obviously put a (welcome) premium on keeping things crisp & in time, i.e. with no rhythmic interpolations etc.

General criticisms of these later releases in the series, then, largely revolve around issues of vocal technique, with the Tallis Scholars adopting the modern approach to breath support that's common in this repertory & beyond, as well as women in the top lines (sometimes making for a relatively shrill blend, but not always). In this, they're not following e.g. ideas on "modal singing" or the like, but are generally projecting a strong tone. (Note that this is not modern singing in the sense of vibrato etc., but rather that the specific "early music voice" has been identified as an English Restoration creation.... The latter also invokes a sense of "angelic tone," but thankfully the Tallis Scholars have adopted a relatively closer & more robust articulation.) Their textual articulation is also especially clear, involving little trills & other details by the end of the series that can really brighten the words & lines.... Indeed, it's a "bright" sound in general, although also earthier than some Renaissance groups.

The series also features masses of high interest for basically every issue. In fact, there's generally one "major" mass on each album, and as noted, most of those are unique masterpieces. Thus, I'm going to traverse the Tallis Scholars series (including the first two programs, only for this purpose), starting with the "main" mass on each:

So the masses above largely prompted me to recommend the individual albums noted farther above (i.e. beyond the nonexistent set per se...). But there are other items on each of these programs, some of high value, some of less.... A continuing rundown of the other masses involved (also in release order):

Anyway, I guess this closes the series.... I'll certainly make a note if the set is reissued as a whole....

So why not four stars? I guess that should be addressed specifically: Although the quantity of great music included here is certainly high, I was simply never blown away by any of the individual albums, meaning their programs in their entirety & associated performances.... It's not really a "complete set" either, in terms of transcending that situation, because the first two issues aren't of similar value (& it wasn't released as such anyway). In that sense, a series of one- & two-star releases just can't add up to four here.... (The restart around Missa Sine nomine did receive three stars here at the time.... No other individual issue has, because although I've often been "impressed," I'm simply not in awe.... And the impact of that 2008 release does also decline with time & more releases.) So, as far as adding up stars, I guess it ends up being a nonlinear system, so to speak. (More like tiers....)

And then there'll, presumably, be other releases that capture my attention for the individual masses, perhaps permanently prompting me to move on, eventually.... In the meantime, though, pace early issues, this is clearly one of the central sets for the Franco-Flemish repertory in general.

To renaissance sacred list.

Todd M. McComb
Updated: 27 January 2022