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Briefly Noted: Josquin and Phrygian Pain

available at Amazon
Josquin Desprez, Missa Malheur me bat, Gli Angeli Genève, Stephan MacLeod

(released on September 22, 2023)
Aparté AP338 | 67'
One cannot have too many recordings of Josquin's cyclic Masses, at least not yet. The complete set by the Tallis Scholars remains hard to beat, but then along comes Gli Angeli Genève with this new release of a program centered on the elusive Renaissance composer's Missa Malheur me bat. The group, founded in 2005, is mostly known for Baroque repertoire, especially Bach. This turn to the High Renaissance was a bit of a surprise, at least to me. The group's director, bass Stephan MacLeod, anchors a group of nine singers. They sing mostly two on each of the four parts in most pieces, with baritone Frederik Sjollema swinging back and forth between tenor and bass.

The sound, recorded at the Eglise Saint-Germain in Geneva, is less aggressive than the Tallis Scholars, who recorded this Mass only about a decade ago: slightly smaller in number of voices, but also more intimate, more rarefied and refined. MacLeod uses one-on-a-part textures in interesting ways, as in building up to the climax with all nine singers in the long Miserere mei deus. This Mass is one of several based on the three-part chanson "Malheur me bat" (formerly attributed to Ockeghem, but now thought to be the work of a composer named Malcort), transcribed along with the Mass in the old Smijers edition of Josquin's music. (The chanson has not survived in any manuscript source with its complete text.)

In a booklet interview, MacLeod said that the appeal of this particular Mass setting was its mode, the Phyrgian (mode 3). Since the chronology of Josquin's music is almost impossible to establish with any certainty, the modality serves instead as programmatic theme, as all the motets placed between the movements of the Mass are in the same mode. With its distinctive half-step above the final, the Phrygian often served as a musical marker for lamentation, which it does in these motets and in the chanson on which the Mass is based, describing both sacred and secular grief: Douleur me bat, Nymphes des bois (for death of Ockeghem), Miserere mei deus, and Mille regretz (of which the attribution to Josquin is now challenged by scholars).

The only non-Phrygian piece is the final motet, Praeter rerum seriem, which follows the last movement of the Mass. (MacLeod's assertion that the text of this motet expresses doubt about the perpetual virginity of Mary is a misreading: no matter what it may mean for MacLeod's beliefs, the text is about wonder and mystery, not doubt.) Praeter rerum seriem is a hymn set in six parts: Josquin has the superius and the tenor answer one another on the original Gregorian melody. To point this out, the choir introduces the motet by singing a verse of the hymn melody by itself in this way, antiphonally back and forth, phrase by phrase, with the triple meter of the polyphony sped up.

The Mass is a compositional wonder, in four voices, but with some two-voice sections in the Sanctus, where the "Hosanna" is over 50 measures long, with interesting shifts of triple and duple and extremely dense textures. The amazing second statement of the Agnus dei, for alto and tenor, is an extended canon at the 2nd, of remarkable complexity. Josquin then outdoes himself in the third Agnus, expanding to six parts: both altus and bassus are split into two, doubled in close canon at the unison. MacLeod and his ensemble sing the piece at the pitch where it was notated (E), just as the Tallis Scholars did, and with women's voices on the superius part.

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