As we approach the holiday season of an annus horribilis, it can be comforting to remind ourselves that centuries ago we humans created ineffably beautiful and lasting works of art to celebrate our holidays despite being unable to prevent or mitigate the plagues and pestilences that routinely swept the planet. This year, as a new plague runs roughshod over us despite modern medicine and technology, we can still enjoy new recordings of masses by the Portuguese composer Duarte Lobo (ca. 1565-1646) and by the even more antique (though more often heard) Josquin des Prés (or des Préz) (ca. 1450/1455-1521).
The first album is by the Portuguese choir Cupertinos, directed by Luís Toscano. Perfect for the season, it includes a series of Christmas responsories. The second comes from the better-known Tallis Scholars led by Peter Phillips. Both albums are superbly sung and recorded. Religious feeling and content aside, this music can act as a balm for the bruised spirit of our age.
Cupertinos, a vocal ensemble dedicated to 16th- and 17th-century Portuguese music, gifts us with Duarte Lobo Masses: Responsories & Motets. In the English-speaking world we tend to hear relatively little Portuguese Renaissance music compared to the works of composers like Monteverdi, Pachelbel, Purcell, Corelli, and Josquin. That makes this release extra welcome.
The choir channels the celebratory spirit that seemed to move Lobo as he composed the eight Christmas responsories at the heart of this release. The existing partbooks for this music are not complete and the works have never before been recorded; the Tenor I part, for example, has been reconstructed by musicologist José Abreu.
The album also includes two masses based on motets by Francisco Guerrero, in which Lobo elaborated the possibilities of counterpoint, as the liner notes explain, “often with astounding originality…revealing a remarkable capacity for manipulation and transformation of the material.”
Eloquent performances and a well-balanced sound create a listening experience both rich and intimate. The choir conveys both monody and counterpoint with fluidity and force, whether in four voices or eight. The album is available now from Hyperion Records.
The venerable Tallis Scholars greet the holiday season with the ninth and final release in their Josquin Mass cycle. The choir began the project all the way back in 1986; now complete, it encompasses all 18 of the composer’s Masses. The new album contains, writes choir director Peter Phillips, “three of his greatest works. Together they form a perfect showcase for a genius who felt challenged to make each setting different.”
In the Missa Hercules Dux Ferrarie Josquin developed a complete Mass setting around a melody reflecting the vowels in the name of the titular Ercole I d’Este of Ferrara, in whose court the composer worked at the beginning of the 16th century. Alphabetic play is only one of the ways Josquin prefigures J.S. Bach; another is the way he intertwines counterpoint around the main melody. The haunting first Agnus, the austerely beautiful second, and the profound six-voice third bring this masterwork to an impressive close.
Missa d’Ung aultre amer, more compact and less elaborate, includes some exceptionally beautiful writing, including a good deal of simple chordal writing demonstrating that these Masses of Josquin’s were much more than intellectual-contrapuntal flash. “Josquin refused to do the same thing twice,” Phillips writes. “Like Beethoven in his symphonies, Josquin used basically the same line-up of performers to create dramatically individual sound-worlds every time he wrote for them.”
The fascinating melodicism of the second Kyrie of the Missa Faysant regretz, for example, feels vastly distant from the solemn chords of “Tu solus qui facis mirabilia” from Missa d’Ung aultre amer, and yet again almost alien from the gently building glorious spirit of the “Et incarnatus” from Missa Hercules Dux Ferrarie.
Though the voices are extremely well balanced, individual ones emerge distinctively. It’s easy to imagine one is at a live performance, something too many of us have not been able to do for too many months. It feels almost miraculous that the Tallis Scholars have completed their Josquin cycle in this plague year. No ensemble sings choral music from this era better than they do. Their mastery seems almost preternatural.
A pinnacle of their decades-long career, this album presents an apex of Renaissance choral music. But it would also make a wonderful introduction to Josquin, to the music of the period, and to the Tallis Scholars (who, naturally, are themselves no strangers to Christmas music). Like the Cupertinos album of never-before-recorded Duarte Lobo music, it would make a wonderful gift for a music-loving friend. It’s available now from Hyperion Records.