Tallis Scholars

Missa ‘Malheur me bat’
Josquin des Prez
Missa ‘Malheur me bat’

Tallis Scholars
Peter Phillips

Reviewed by: Edward Clark

Reviewed: 22 July, 2008
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

This late-night Prom gives the lie to our preoccupation that we live in uniquely complex musical times. Cast back 500 years and the word “complex” achieves its true meaning.

Jacob Obrecht (1450/1 - 1505)Planned so that the “simple” chanson “Malheur me bat” (Misfortune batters me) became the theme for two huge, near-contemporary Masses, this Prom lasted over 80 minutes without an interval. I have not concentrated on unfamiliar music so much since listening to the 80-minute first act of Sir Harrison Birtwistle’s opera “The Mask of Orpheus”. But the complexities of Birtwistle, Peter Maxwell Davies and Brian Ferneyhough (to name three moderns) pale into insignificance alongside these two great 15th-century creation.

First we heard the “Missa” by Jacob Obrecht (before 1497). Reading the programme note we understand what Obrecht did to achieve the mastery heard in this setting: “He divides the melody into nine different segments and draws on one segment for each of the four-voice sections of the Mass.”

Then we heard the inspirational chanson itself (now attributed to one of three different composers) for three voices. No wonder this richly diffused music appealed to, at least, two geniuses of the age.

The “Missa” by Josquin is even more complex. Composed a little later than Obrecht’s, by a few years, it showed the difference of national styles. Quite where the original chanson appears in each Mass is beyond my mortal ears.

And there lies the problem. Was this Prom too clever by half? We can glory in the polyphonic mastery of this Early Music but does it mean anything to the uninitiated? Does it matter? Beauty of utterance, as achieved here by the Tallis Scholars under Peter Phillips, should alone justify the late evening and the trudge home.

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