Friday, August 19, 2022

Josquin, Der Noten Meister

2021 was Josquin year: he died in 1521. He was considered the greatest composer of the time and is still considered the greatest composer of the Renaissance. Who doesn't know his Ave Maria? A composer like Josquin does not need a commemoration. His music, both sacred and secular, is available on many discs. Even so, the commemoration of his death was the reason that several discs have been released. The Brabant Ensemble [1], directed by Stephen Rice, recorded ten motets, which are considered authentic. Rice, in his liner-notes, discusses at length the issue of authenticity, and mentions a number of pieces that have been and still are the subject of scholarly research with regard to their authorship. Josquin experts often have completely opposite views. Some pieces in the programme have been performed with parts that have been added by other composers. This was a pretty common practice, and has to be interpreted as a way to express admiration for Josquin. In some cases the additional parts may be from Josquin's own pen; in that case we have to do with early and later versions. As one may gather, this disc is quite interesting, and even those who have many recordings of Josquin's music in their collection, may find here something that they are not familiar with. If you purchase this disc, you are well advised to read first the liner-notes carefully. There is no need to specifically mention highlights; every piece is of superior quality. As far as the performances are concerned, these are very good. There are some moments in which the text is illustrated in the music, and these have not escaped the attention of the performers. There is just one issue, which concerns the Stabat mater. It is an exemple of a piece which is performed here with an additional part. Josquin's version is for five voices, here we get a six-part version, which has been preserved in a Czech manuscript, in which the text is 'protestantized'. The second section begins with the words "Christe verbum" instead of "Eia mater". For this recording, the additional part is performed with the original text. That is questionable, as Josquin's version was probably never performed with six voices. It would have been more plausible to use the 'protestant' text in all parts instead. That way it would have represented an interesting aspect of the Josquin reception in his time. It does not compromise my appreciation of this disc, which is a substantial addition to the Josquin discography.

It was common practice in the Renaissance to intabulate vocal music so that it could be played on a plucked instrument. This practice was by no means limited to secular music; sacred works could also be treated this way. It was also not uncommon for one or more parts to be performed vocally. Sebastian Ochsenkun mentioned this possibility in his Heidelberg tablature book. In Spain it was Diego Pisador, vihuela player and composer, who mentions this practice in his Libro de música de vihuela (1552), when he writes that he wants "the reader to know that all that is in this book I have done with great diligence and labour so that it might be correct and of great clarity without diminutions, so that players may recognise the voices easily as they are on the vihuela, and so that they might be able to sing them (...)". There are no fewer than eight Josquin Masses in this book. The composer was immensely popular in Spain, and his works can be found in intabulations in various collections of music for the vihuela, including those by Luys de Narváez and Alonso Mudarra. The aforementioned practice and the popularity of Josquin's music in Spain inspired Ariel Abramovich [2] to transcribe works by Josquin for the vihuela, in addition to some intabulations by Spanish composers, and to invite María Cristina Kiehr and Jonatan Alvarado to sing the vocal parts. Some of Josquin's best-known works are included, such as Nymphes, nappés, Praeter rerum seriem, Mille regretz and the above- mentioned Stabat mater. There are also some mass sections and the programme ends with Josquin's Déploration sur la mort d'Ockeghem. What is offered here is relatively unusual - not from a historical point of view, but from the perspective of today's performance practice. That is a shame because it offers the opportunity to listen to Josquin's music from a different angle. The performances are very good. María Cristina Kiehr and Jonatan Alvarado have the perfect voices for this repertoire and they blend superbly. Ariel Abramovich is a very fine and sensitive performer, which comes especially to the fore in Mille regretz, the only piece he performs alone. There is only point of criticism: the recording. It was done in a church and that was a bad idea. Singing to the vihuela was something taking place in intimate surroundings, not in a church. Due to the church acoustic, the voices are too dominant. They sound like soloists, but they are not. Originally, it was undoubtedly the vihuela player himself who sang to his playing. Today these roles are separated, but that is no reason to put the voices into the centre. I highly appreciate the concept of this recording as well as the actual performances. It is unfortunate that the recording damages the overall positive impression of this project.

The last disc offers French chansons, which in all likelihood date from two periods of Josquin's career. The first was when he was in the service of René 'le Bon' d'Anjou (in the 1470s) and the second when he had settled back in his native region at the end of his career (after 1504). These songs are heavily inspired by simple folk songs; it is known that René d'Anjou and his second wife, Jeanne de Laval, not only had a great interest in literature and art, but also loved the simple life, and occasionally disguised themselves as shepherds. Denis Raisin Dadre, the director of the ensemble Doulce Mémoire [3], took the connection to folk culture as an opportunity to compare chansons with folk songs. This enabled him to increase the number of stanzas in some cases. By the way, there are not only pieces by Josquin here. His Ma bouche rit is preceded by Ockeghem's version, with partly different lyrics, and Scaramella va alla guerra is based on a version by Loyset Compère (Scaramella fa la galla). There are also a few instrumental works from the Lochamer Liederbuch, whose relation to Josquin is unclear. In that respect the documentation leaves something to be desired. The programme also includes some of Josquin's most popular works, the authenticity of which is very much in doubt: El grillo and In te domine speravi'. I have rarely heard the latter work performed as nicely as here: the soprano Clara Coutouly sings it extraordinarily beautifully, with imaginative embellishments. In contrast, let's forget the caricatural treatment of El grillo. All in all, I really like this disc: the performances by the singers are first class, and the instruments - recorders and shawms - are also played excellently. Independent of the level of interpretation, this production has several things to offer that makes it an interesting addition to Josquin's discography. The booklet includes an informative introduction to Josquin and his oeuvre by David Fallows.

Another disc with music by Josquin has been released recently at the Aparté label. I was looking forward to that one, as the performers are the members of the ensemble thélème, whose disc with chansons by Claude Le Jeune and Clément Janequin I rated positively. However, reading the booklet caused disappointment. In some items instruments from an entirely different world participate: the ondes Martinot, the Fender Rhodes and the Buchla synthesizer. For me, these are completely unknown quantities: I have not heard them and I have not the slightest desire to change that. Therefore I decided not to review this disc: I have neither the time nor the appetite to listen to this kind of nonsense, which has nothing to do with historical performance practice.

[1] "Motets & Mass Movements"
The Brabant Ensemble/Stephen Rice
Hyperion CDA68321 (© 2021) details

[2] "The Josquin Songbook"
María Cristina Kiehr, soprano; Jonatan Alvarado, tenor; Ariel Abramovich, vihuela
Glossa GCD 923529 (© 2021) details

[3] "Tant vous aime"
Doulce Mémoire/Denis Raisin Dadre
Ricercar RIC 436 (© 2022) details

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