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CD Reviews: Josquin's Dice Mass

Patrick Rucker and Charles T. Downey, CD reviews: Fresh takes on Gershwin and Josquin
Washington Post, January 19

available at Amazon
Josquin Desprez, Missa Di dadi / Missa Une mousse de Biscaye, Tallis Scholars, P. Phillips

(released on October 28, 2016)
Gimell CDGIM048 | 71'13"
By all accounts, Josquin des Prez (c. 1450-1521) was the Beethoven of the high Renaissance. In one of his sermons, Martin Luther declared the composer “the master of the notes, which must do as he wills; the other choirmasters must do as the notes will.” The Tallis Scholars, the redoubtable English choir that specializes in Renaissance music, is recording all of the polyphonic settings of the Latin Mass Ordinary attributed to Josquin. The group released the sixth volume of the set a few weeks ago on Gimell Records, its private label, and it continues to be authoritative.

Yet neither of the two Masses on the new recording might actually be by Josquin. Elements of the composer’s style seem to abound in the “Missa Di dadi” (“Mass of the dice”), including long strands of bicinia, two-part sections of music, for various combinations of the four voices, piled up in strict imitation of one another. Voices repeat motifs obsessively in some places, and there are long chains of reiterated suspensions in almost endless cycles — in, for example, the “Crucifixus” section of the Credo.

The composer drew the tenor part of the Mass from “N’aray je jamais mieulx” (“Will I never have better”), a rondeau by Robert Morton. A pair of the titular dice appear in the score at the beginning of each movement, indicating the ratio by which the tenors must alter the rhythms of their part in some of the movements for a performance to make sense. (The Tallis Scholars have published the edition by Timothy Symons that was used for the recording, although the performance deviates from it in some minor matters.)

The second piece, “Missa Une mousse de Biscaye,” also is based on a secular tune: a folk song about a conversation between a French man and a Basque girl (“mousse” derives from the Spanish word “moza,” meaning girl). A curious piece, it might be an early Mass by Josquin, composed before he had reached his mature style, or it might not be by Josquin at all. Both pieces receive detailed, balanced performances on this disc, with intonation and blend, within each section and across the choir, up to the Tallis Scholars’ incomparable standards.
Part 3 | Part 2 | Part 1

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