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JOSQUIN Des Prez (c.1445-1521)
Miserere mei Deus
Funeral Motets and Deplorations
Deploration sur la mort d’Ockeghem. Nymphes de bois/Requiem aeternam [3:30]
Nimphes, nappes/Circumdederunt me [2:19]
In principio erat Verbum [9:02]
Absolve quaesumus, Domine [3:40]
Absolon fili mi [3:30]
Planxit autem David [13:17]
De Profundis/Requiem aeternam [4:33]
Miserere mei, Deus [14:46]
Pater noster/ Ave Maria [7:05]
Nicolas GOMBERT (c.1495-c.1560)
Musae Jovis [5:20]
Capella Amsterdam/Daniel Reuss
rec. 2018, de Waalse Kerke, Amsterdam
HARMONIA MUNDI HMM902620 [66:10]

It may be that a disc of seemingly sombre funereal motets sounds a little mawkish. Yet these pieces make a wonderfully cohesive and not at all a dull samey collection.

Josquin wrote a Deploration on the death of his teacher Ockeghem, Nymphes des bois (track 1). Gombert composed a motet, Musae Jovis, on the death of Josquin (track 17) using the same tenor chant but putting it down a semitone as Josquin had put down a semitone the tenor line used in his setting.

Interestingly, one also might think that such music would be in what we now consider minor mode, but this is not necessarily the case. For example, the well-known David’s lament over his son, Absolon, filli mi, is in the major mode (in my ‘Mapa Mundi’ edition in Eb major with the flattened seventh), and so is Planxit autem David, his lament over Saul and Jonathan. This motet, quite lengthy, is divided into four parts and tracked appropriately, as is the setting of Miserere mei, Deus, Psalm 51, which is in three portions. This is a real masterwork, with its regular, never tedious repetitions of ‘Miserere, mei Deus’. It also is a very moving performance.

On discussing why Josquin and his contemporaries used certain modes, a student of mine afterwards wrote that it was “acceptable to use the major mode for biblical lamentations possibly because ultimately, even the death of great people in the bible is all a part of GOD’S mysterious plan but one would use the minor mode for one’s masters and friends because they are more immediate and personal”. I quote with her permission, and I think there is much in it. It can also be said that the last two named motets are also calm and accepting in mood, and so well captured by these performances. So I suppose that all this is a long-winded way of explaining that – contrary to expectations – this music has variety of expression, key and indeed texture.

So what of this Dutch choir Capella Amsterdam? Renaissance music has not actually featured their previous recordings. Frank Martin, yes, Arvo Pärt, yes, but nothing ancient. Daniel Reuss seems to take the view that Josquin composed beautiful music, which needs a smooth approach with subtle dynamics and not overly intense expression. This, in fact, is rather akin to a British Choir, one might think, with women on the top line. Does that seem right, as boys were initially employed, and how does it compare with, say, the Clerks’ Group who have recorded several Josquin motets and some masses?

Neither group is of course expressionless but dynamic shading is easier to hear in the Clerks’ recordings. They consist of eight singers and they are closely recorded, so the motets sound more like chamber music in a private space. The Amsterdam Choir, twelve singers, are equally thoughtful about suitable tempi but have more space around. That creates a sheen of holiness, which is very suitable. Their work sounds more like the abbey ‘choir stalls’ than the private chapel. The Tallis Scholars who have also recorded much Josquin (mostly Masses) fit somewhere between the two.

So here is the question which arises for me (and which might help the reader): will I be ultimately keeping hold of this disc on shelves, which are already too full? I think yes, because of the unique nature of the programme which, although it is music of mourning, is never uninteresting or unvaried.

The recording was made in a spacious late-medieval church with a warm acoustic. The booklet essay by Alice Tacaille gives a generalistic overview of the pieces without detailing all of them. The texts are clearly set out in the booklet, attached into a beautifully illustrated cardboard case, in the original Latin, translated into English, French and German.

Gary Higginson


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