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JOSQUIN DESPREZ (c1455 - 1521): "In principio - De nativitate Jesu Christi"

De Labyrintho
Dir: Walter Testolin

rec: Nov 16 - 18, 2018, Bassum, Stiftskirche
Baryton - DL001-21 (© 2021) (69'07")
Liner-notes (Willem Elders, Walter Testolin): E/IT; lyrics - translations: E/IT
Cover & track-list

[in order of appearance] Liber generationis Jesu Christi a 4; Missus est Gabriel angelus a 4; O virgo virginum a 6; In principio erat Verbum a 4; Praeter rerum seriem a 6; O admirabile commercium - Quando natus est - Rubum quem viderat Moyses - Germinavit radix Jesse - Ecce Maria genuit a 4; Factum est autem a 4

Nadia Caristi, Arianna Miceli, Laura Fabris, Elena Bertuzzi, Federico Fiorio, cantus; Andrès Montilla Acurero, Matteo Pigato, Gianluca Ferrarini, altus 1; Massimo Altieri, Renato Grotto, Enrico Imbalzano, altus 2; Giacomo Schiavo, Vincenzo di Donato, Riccardo Pisani, tenor; Marco Scavazza, Marco Saccardin, Alberto Spadarotto, bassus 1; Guglielmo Buonsanti, Matteo Bellotto, Enrico Bava, bassus 2

In 2021, the death of Josquin Desprez in 1521 was commemorated. He hardly needed any special events, as he is one of the most frequently-performed composers of the Renaissance. Therefore it was no real drama that the commemoration more or less fell through because of the COVID-19 pandemic. It did not withhold ensembles and record labels from releasing discs with Josquin's music, either in new recordings or in reissues. The disc to be reviewed here was also released in 1521, but only recently crossed my path. As it is devoted to his oeuvre for Christmastide, it is a good reason to review it now, in December 2023.

The programme opens and closes with two pieces of comparable content: Liber generationis Jesu Christi and Factum est autem both focus on the genealogy of Jesus, taken from the Gospels after Matthew and Luke respectively. The two texts are different, though. Matthew lists, after the heading ("This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah the son of David, the son of Abraham"), the generations from Abraham to Jesus: "Abraham begat Isaac, and Isaac begat Jacob" etc. This episode in the first chapter of the Gospel ends with the words: "And Jacob begat Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ." Josquin's setting is divided into three sections. The first ends with David, the second with the Babylonian captivity. Whereas the first and third sections are for four voices, in the second the number of parts is reduced to three. In the closing verse, the name Christus is set to a three-note motif in all voices: sol-mi-mi. This genealogy was sung at Christmas Matins.

Factum est autem is a setting of the genealogy in the Gospel after Luke (ch 3). In the monastic tradition, this was sung during Epiphany Matins. The episode in Luke opens with Jesus's being baptized by John the Baptist. The Holy Ghost descended upon him in the shape of a dove, and a voice from heaven is heard, saying: "You are my beloved son, in you I am well pleased". Luke then writes that Jesus, about thirty years of age, began his ministry, "being, as it was thought, the son Joseph, the son of Heli" etc. We then get a genealogy in the reverse order, going back beyomd Abraham, until Adam, "who was the son of God". Josquin adds the first verse of ch. 4: "Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan". This work is again divided into three sections: the episode about Jesus's baptism is the first, the genealogy until Jesse, father of David, is the second, and the third is the remaining list until Adam with the verse from Luke 4. It is set for four voices, but includes episodes in which the number of parts is reduced to three or two.

The placement of these two pieces at the start and the end indicates that the pieces selected for this programme, are performed more or less in their liturgical order. Missus est Gabriel is a combination of the texts of two antiphons for the feast of the Annunciation; the second section is a setting of Ave Maria, gratia plena. Whereas Josquin quotes the plainchant melody of the latter, the opening of the motet does not include any known chant melody.

O virgo virginum is one of the so-called O Antiphons, sung on the fourth Sunday of Advent. It consists of two sections, both of which include a question, which is eloquently illustrated by a figure of two descending seconds, followed by a rising fifth. The motet is set for six voices and includes passages in four and five parts.

With In principio erat verbum we turn to the Gospel of John, who opens with the words: "In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God". Josquin set the first sixteen verses of chapter 1, and divides the text into three sections. The first comprises the verses 1-5, which is a statement about the Word. The second is about John the Baptist, "sent from God", who came as a witness, announcing the coming of Jesus. The third section says that "the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us". The text is recited at Christmas in daytime Mass and at the end of the daily Eucharist service. At the end of first section, Josquin uses a falling third, illustrating the "darkness" mentioned in the fifth verse. The setting is for four voices, with passages for two and three. In the last section, the opening words - "the Word became flesh" - are emphased through chordal writing.

Praeter rerum seriem is one of Josquin's best-known pieces, also because Orlandus Lassus used it as the foundation of a Magnificat. Josquin uses the sequence, which dates from the 13th century, as cantus firmus. It is often associated with Marian feasts, but some sources connect it to Christmas night. The text suggests that Josquin wrote it for the first day of Christmas: "Against the order of things a virgin mother gave birth to God in human form". This piece seems to have taken a special place after Josquin's death (and maybe during his life as well), reflecting the status of the composer. Walter Testolin, in his personal notes on this recording, mentions that a document from 1540 reports about a Mass in Cambrai, celebrated in honour of Charles V, during which the motet was sung by 33 voices.

During the feast of the Circumcision of our Lord on 1 January, the five motets were sung that Josquin set as a cycle: O admirabile commercium, Quando natus est, Rubum quem viderat Moyses, Germinavit radix Jesse and Ecce Maria genuit. Apparently these texts were among the most popular, as they were frequently set, Willem Elders states in his liner-notes. The first two are about Jesus ("The creator of mankind taking on a human body" - "When you were born ineffably of a virgin, the scriptures were fulfilled"), the next two about Mary ("Virgin, Mother of God, intercede for us" - "The virgin has given birth to the Saviour"), whereas the fifth is about both ("Behold, Mary has given birth to our Saviour (...) Behold, the Lamb of God"). In the first the opening "O" is given special treatment, as is the word "descended" in the second. In the third the words "intercede pro nobis" are singled out. The cycle fittingly ends with a repeated "Alleluia".

De Labyrintho has been founded in 2001 with the purpose of performing the music of Josquin Desprez. It has made several recordings with masses and motets, but also music of later periods, such as Lassus and Gesualdo. As I indicated above, there is certainly no lack of recordings of Josquin's oeuvre, but this disc deserves its place among them. One of its assets is the focus on one particular period of the ecclesiastical year. Every year a number of discs with music for Christmastide are released; some are interesting, some too 'popular'. This disc is special because of its focus on Josquin and the quality of the performances. For Praeter rerum seriem Testolin attempted to give an idea about the performance in 1540 mentioned above by entending the ensemble to twenty singers. That in itself is a good reason to add this disc to one's collection. Some of the pieces here may be lesser-known than others. De Labyrintho consists of excellent voices, and the singing is of high quality throughout. The liner-notes by Willem Elders are most helpful for a better understanding of Josquin's treatment of the text and plainchant.

Johan van Veen (© 2023)

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