Josquin des Prez
Missa Fortuna desperata
Illibata Dei virgo nutrix
Five Motets [BBC commission: world premiere]
Tye and Byrd
In nomine settings
The Clerks Group
His Majestys Sagbutts and Cornetts
Reviewed by: Timothy Ball
Reviewed: 5 September, 2003
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London
This was an intriguingly devised concert. The first performance of Robert Saxton’s Five Motets occurred between the ’Credo’ and ’Sanctus’ of Josquin’s Mass, and the motets themselves were interspersed by instrumental versions of In nomine. The whole was framed by two Marian motets.
Singers and players gathered round a large music stand for the opening item – Isaac’s Angeli, archangeli – in which Edward Wickham supplemented his directorial role by being page-turner, and one was immediately impressed with the conviction and integrity of the performers. One or two faltering moments from the first soprano aside, this began the proceedings radiantly, with lines clearly articulated. The balance was fine – no mean feat when the vocal lines are doubled by cornets and sackbuts.
The chanson Fortuna desperata, attributed to Busnoys, was then given in an instrumental version. The players of His Majestys Sagbutts and Cornetts (sic) struggled valiantly to produce mellifluous sounds from their instruments – periodically with more success. Fascinating though it was to hear these sounds, it has to be conceded that the intonation made the experience somewhat trying at times. The melodic line, especially, proved to be reluctant to remain consistently in tune. I speculated whether composers writing hundreds of years ago for the instruments at their disposal would really have expected them to be still in use centuries later – assuming, of course, that they gave any consideration to such matters, given that their music was created for instant performance.
It was useful to hear this melody by way of preparation for Josquin’s Mass that is based around it. The first three sections were given clean performances, but with an approach to dynamics that was pretty much unvaried throughout. Whilst one could admire the various strands of writing, a little more variety in this regard would not have gone amiss.
The texts for Robert Saxton’s Five Motets are biblical in origin – sung in Latin – and alongside these are poems written by the composer which comment on the former. The textural theme is that of a journey – both spiritual and physical – and this is reflected in the cyclic nature of the keys employed.
Like Josquin’s Mass, Saxton bases his material on a pre-existing theme – in this instance the In nomine from John Taverner’s Mass Gloria Tibi Trinitas (the 16th-century Tavener, that is, not his present-day namesake; in any case, the spelling is different). This is then subjected to similar compositional procedures to those employed in Renaissance and medieval music. After one hearing, it would have to be admitted that the use of Taverner’s theme is not readily discernible; I daresay greater familiarity may render it more evident.
Saxton’s settings are intense, with the voices in eight or nine parts but often giving the curious impression of being greater in number owing to the density of the harmonic writing. The Motets were sung with remarkable assurance and conviction, some very awkward writing rendered quite naturally.
One’s initial impression was partly of Renaissance music being re-thought through a kind of contemporary prism, but it was not particularly easy to make out the words which had been selected with care for their potential for musical imagery. Saxton’s own poems are touching and eloquent – so it was a shame that they were not terribly intelligible.
Just as Josquin’s Mass had interpolations, so Saxton’s Motets were interspersed with instrumental In nomines by Byrd and Tye. I’m not sure that these were entirely appropriate, given that they nullified the atmosphere created by Saxton’s music. Although Saxton had intended these instrumental interludes, I hope it will be possible to hear his set as an uninterrupted sequence.
The remainder of Josquin’s Mass was then sung, but felt muted in impact after the excursion into the musical language of today.
Finally, Josquin’s Illibata Dei virgo nutrix re-united The Clerks’ Group and the instrumentalists, drawing a stimulating concert to an ecstatically luminous close.