:: Josquin Desprez


Josquin journeys

Wednesday, December 16th, 2020

Art of the Netherlands

The Art of the Netherlands (EMI 1976)

Early Music Consort

My first encounter with the most significant composer of the late 15th/early 16th century was in 1976. They were heady times: I’d been grappling with scat and Berio for two years with the Swingles when out of the blue came an invitation to sing on what would be David Munrow’s last two recording projects, the Art of the Gothic and the Art of the Netherlands. Everyone who sang on those seminal albums had come up through the English choral tradition – which only went back as far as Tallis and Byrd (or Tavener if you were especially esoteric), so they were as revelatory as Berio in their way.  I sang on four Josquin tracks and was also introduced to Brumel and Mouton’s Nesciens Mater. The Brumel Et Ecce Terrae Motus Gloria included a stonking countertenor line-up consisting of David James, James Bowman and Charles Brett, and four of the five tenors who would later sing in the Hilliard Ensemble, all of us driven along by DM’s energetic conducting. It was in Abbey Road, and if the earth didn’t move it wasn’t for want of trying. Inviolata and Josquin’s mass movements would reappear decades later in a process that would mirror the historical life of the piece, morphing from liturgical polyphony to domestic performance based on lute intabulations. Actually, Nesciens wasn’t yet by Mouton; here’s it’s anon, the authorial limbo that claimed many pieces originally attributed to Josquin. Whoever wrote it, it’s one of those pieces that is so moving that it can be almost impossible to sing unless you’re completely in the zone.

 

Josquin Desprez - Motets and Chansons

Missa Hercules Dux Ferrariae (EMI 1989)

Hilliard Ensemble

The Hilliards had already made one Josquin recording before I joined them. By this time Jozza was beginning to shed more of his attributions (Mouton had gained Nesciens and Lugebat Absalon had fallen to Gombert). We took part in a famous Josquin conference at which several academics who should have known better walked out during a performance by the American ensemble Chanticleer (one of the first groups to challenge the comfortable euphony of the Oxbridge sound). Although more than a decade after the Munrow recording, on our 1989 album (like the Munrow albums, re-released and anthologised many times since) we were still singing like soloists reining ourselves in; for the mass propers we added additional voices, giving it a choral feel that we would later abandon. The last track is Tu Solus Qui Facis Mirabilia, sublime in its stillness and simplicity, but not quite yet the instinctively blended, perfectly tuned performance we would later achieve live. Over the years we would perform plenty more Josquin, but only one motet found its way onto disc: Ave Maria is the final track on the 1993 Codex Specialnik album.

 

Master of Musicians - Songs & instrumental music by Josquin des Pres, his pupils & contemporaries /Musica Antiqua of London

Master of Musicians (Signum 2000)

Musica Antiqua of London

I’ve tried to avoid Josquin’s songs wherever possible but couldn’t resist agreeing to taking part in this Musica Antique recording. I grew out of Scaramella, el grillo and La tricotee quite quickly and have tried not to look back. This album of secular music by Josquin and his contemporaries is very much of its time: an excellent instrumental band getting in a bunch of singers who had never sung with each other before, and presenting the same song in several different versions (a bizarre obsession of early music programme planners at the time). Another distinctive feature is the booklet, which is so strangely laid out that it can take a whole track to discover who’s performing (by which time you’re on to the next one).

 

Romaria

In flagellis; Tu solus qui facis (ECM 2006)

Dowland Project

Jacob Heringman’s 2000 DGM album of Josquin intabulations made a huge impression, not least because it opened my eyes to the colourful history of Josquin performance normally overlooked by scholars. It confirmed that the Dowland Project (which Jake would later join) was on the right track, and the two performances on this album take the process further still. We’ve come a long way from the intensive head-banging rehearsal days of a quarter of a century before. These are first or second takes and have the freshness (and sometimes panic) of the moment.

 

Secret History: Sacred Music By Josquin And Victoria

Secret History (ECM 2011)

This is in one respect the most important recording I did in the second decade of the 21st century: it gave birth to the Alternative History ensemble (the name came later). It was conceived as two CDs, one of which would celebrate the Victoria centenary; it ended up six years later as a single album and has become our contribution to the Josquin centenary. After the Dowland Project’s de-constructions it was great to connect with Ariel Abramovich who was deeply into Josquin intabulations. He proposed an album with two singers and two lutes, having collaborated in the past with Lee Santana. It brings together many of my favourite Josquin motets, and we hoped it would help to revolutionise Josquin performance, showing the longer performance history of the pieces. It wasn’t easy and we didn’t get it all done, eventually combining it with the proposed Victoria album. Together they make a slightly different point, that intabulations of both composers sit side by side in later manuscripts all over Europe. We’ve done many performances since of both composers, and I’ve done similar tab programmes with Jake and Ariel separately here in England as well as Spain and South America, so it generated some great music making.

 

Tu solus qui facis (Armonia Concertada, 2017)

My most recent recording is as a guest (with Jacob Heringman, who also has a magnificent new Josquin album) on Imaginario, a sumptuous recording by Maria Cristina Kiehr and Ariel Abramovich of an imaginary vihuela songbook. Unusually, it was recorded in England, in a tiny church on one of the coldest days of the year. It didn’t get down to the minus 12 that the Sound & Fury once had to cope with in Mauerbach, but it was so cold that Jake and I could barely function. It does, though, show something of what might have been done with the homophonic Josquin pieces. One of the joys of this motet is that it can take you by surprise as you continually seek to renew it. Jake and I are now so attuned to each other‘s idea of Josquin that on our first run we found ourselves sometimes doing the same spontaneous and quite complex ornamental flourishes simultaneously. You never know where the music’s going to take you. Jake and Ariel duet on this album, and they have a duo album of their own called Cifras Imaginarias. Their duo is the other great result of the Alternative History project.

  Cifras Imaginarias - Musica Para Taner A Dos Vihuelas      Josquin Des Prez: Inviolata [Jacob Heringman] [Resonus Classics: INV1004]   Fantasia sobre el madrigal "Anchor che col partire"

Modern performances of a cappella Josquin can be ravishing to listen to, and they have a rich history from the nineteen seventies onwards. I relished being inside the texture of the Hilliard and Sound & Fury Franco-Flemish polyphony but I love the way my experience of  this music has evolved in much the same way as would have happened in the 16th/17th centuries, beginning with a cappella polyphony based on the composer’s manuscript, then nearly half a century later still cannibalising it for whatever forces are available. It’s what Josquin and his contemporaries would have expected, and it puts us in touch not only with him, but those who kept his music alive for generations after his death. If you want to get close to Josquin the living breathing musician, reach for your lute or reach out to your lutenist friends.

 

 

 

Autumn release for Secret History

Sunday, March 12th, 2017

The saga continues, and our Josquin & Victoria album will not now be released until the autumn. Think Christmas presents…

If you only know the songs by Sting, John Paul Jones and Tony Banks that the four of us recorded on the Amores Pasados album you might wonder how we got to Josquin and Victoria.  In fact, Josquin and Victoria was where it all began. Ariel Abramovich and I had been contemplating an album of Josquin, versions of his motets pared down for the two of us in keeping with our belief that the pristine ‘early music’ acappella performance of Franco-Flemish polyphony has misrepresented the way the music was mostly performed. This then evolved into a much more sensible plan to use two vihuelas and two voices, so we asked Anna Maria Friman and Lee Santana to join us. In the meantime it dawned on us that there was a Victoria anniversary coming up which we could approach in the same spirit. Lee couldn’t make the Victoria sessions so we asked Jacob Heringman (also a great intabulator whose approach was identical to ours). In one of those serendipitous ECM meetings Hille Perl happened to be there too, so she joined us for a couple of pieces.

The recording wasn’t easy – we were learning on the hoof how best to re-invent a performing style that was both unique to us and yet absolutely true to the spirit of the pre-baroque – and it was the first time each of the combinations had worked together. It was also the only time I’ve proposed a purely ‘early music’ project to ECM (early music being a concept that the label doesn’t really do). The Dowland Project uses early music as a resource – we live entirely in the musical present and have very little to do with the early music movement. Secret History, on the other hand, is a deliberate attempt to challenge the conventions and assumptions of the ‘early music’ approach to historical performance.  The music lives in the present of course, but in just the same way as it lived in the present of 400 years ago.

The next chapter was the realisation that the combination of two voices and two lutes or vihuelas was not only the perfect way to perform almost any music from the 15th and 16th centuries, but that we could apply the same principles in a bit of reverse historical engineering to 20th century English song. From there it was a short step to asking Sting and Tony Banks to write something for us, and to revive the suite that John Paul Jones wrote for Red Byrd. In contrast to the occasional awkwardness of Secret History, the Amores Pasados recording sessions were pure joy, and even though the first album was ready to go it was decided to hold it back until after Amores Pasados. The rest, as they say, is History, and it’s Josquin and Victoria that we’ll be focusing on for the next season, alongside new developments in the Amores Pasados repertoire in preparation for a future recording.

There’s another reason this recording resonates for me. Amores Pasados was recorded at Rainbow in Oslo and our current plans assume studio recordings in future, so this may turn out to have been my last at St Gerold. This jewel-like monastery in the Austrian Alps was the spiritual birthplace of so many ECM projects. It was where the Hilliard Ensemble developed its formidable creative partnership with Manfred Eicher, where we did the first experiments with Jan Garbarek that resulted in the Officium and Mnemosyne albums, all under the kindly eye of its only monk (and wine buff), Pater Nathaniel.  Three of the Dowland Project albums were made there, the first coinciding with the attack on the twin towers which we watched uncomprehendingly on the monastery’s stuttering black and white television. More recently I produced Trio Mediaeval recordings there (or rather, I sat beside Peter Laenger). The legendary Pater Nathaniel had retired but the monastery garden was still producing its own organic food and the wine still flowed. I’ll never forget it.

 

St Gerold in the snow