musica Dei donum

CD reviews

JOSQUIN DESPREZ (c1450/55 - 1521): Adieu mes amours

Dulces Exuviae

rec: Oct 2018, Centeilles, Église Notre-Dame
Ricercar - RIC 403 (© 2020) (62'52")
Liner-notes: E/F; lyrics - translations: E/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Marco DALL'AQUILA (c1480-after 1538): Ricercar; Hans GERLE (c1500-1570): En l'ombre d'ung buissonnet; JOSQUIN DESPREZ: Adieu mes amours; Ave Maria; Douleur me bat; Fortuna desperata; Ile fantazies de Joskin; In te, domine, speravi; La Bernardina; La plus des plus; Mille regretz (attr); Nimphes napées; Nymphes des bois; Regretz sans fin; Luys DE NARVÁEZ (fl 1526-1549): La Canción del Emperador; Johannes OCKEGHEM (c1410-1497): Quant de vous seul

Romain Bockler, baritone; Bor Zuljan, lute

Josquin Desprez was undoubtedly the most celebrated composer of his time. His reputation as a composer makes him a typical product of the spirit of the Renaissance, which emphasized the importance of individual personality, in contrast to previous times, when it was not that important who composed a piece of music. The liner-notes to the present disc refer to an anecdote included in Baldassare Castiglione's Il Libro del Cortegiano (Book of the Courtier), who writes that "when a motet was sung before the Duchess, it pleased no one and was not found good, until it was known to be the work of Josquin de Pres". This is not very different in our time, when sometimes pieces are ignored, unless they are identified as being from the pen of a famous composer, such as Handel or Vivaldi. The consequence is that many compositions were attributed to Josquin, which are probably or very likely from someone other's pen. It is hardly surprising, that New Grove includes a long list of "doubtful and misattributed works". Even without them, the extant oeuvre of Josquin is impressive and versatile. He contributed to all the genres of his time, and felt equally at home in sacred music (masses, motets) as in secular works, mostly chansons on French texts, but also some pieces in Italian.

Whereas his earliest chansons are mostly for three voices, as was the custom in the 15th century, in his later chansons Josquin extends the number of voices to four, five or six. If all the parts - or at least some of them - are performed vocally, which is mostly the case in modern performances and recordings, the text is not clearly intelligible. Whereas in the case of sacred music, it may be questionable whether that was considered a problem, as liturgical texts were generally known and such music was not intended to be listened to in the first place, that may be different as far as secular music is concerned. This aspect makes this disc especially interesting.

"In this recording (...) the performers invite us to listen to another Josquin, focusing not on his ease in handling different polyphonic parts, but rather on his melodic inspiration, which can sometimes be obscured when all voices are sung simultaneously." The liner-notes refer once again to Castiglione: "It seems to me that he who sings well makes beautiful music, reading the score with confidence and in a pleasant way. But it is far more beautiful to be able to sing upon the lute, because true gentleness lies so to speak in one melody, and you perceive and hear the air and the art of singing much more carefully, when the ears are not busy listening to more than one voice".

When in 1601 Giulio Caccini published a book of songs for voice and basso continuo, he suggested that this was a completely new way of singing. This was expressed in the title of the edition, Le nuove musiche. Whether he really believed that of whether this was a commercial ploy is an interesting subject, which I won't discuss here. Fact is that performances by a solo voice with instruments was common practice in the 16th century. It is documented that madrigals could be performed by a solo voice and, for instance, a consort of viols. Frottolas were often performed by a solo voice with an accompaniment of a plucked instrument. Apparently, this way of performing goes even further back in time. The reduction of several parts on a single lute is documented by the many intavolations. The present disc includes one specimen of such an intavolation: En l'ombre d'ung buisonnet by Hans Gerle.

These performances have an additional feature which make them even more interesting. The isolation of a single part to be performed vocally allows the singer to add ornamentation. Once again, the liner-notes refer to Castiglione, who praises a singer whose style was "rich in (...) varied melodies". "[Experts] now agree that the allusion to 'varied melodies' refers to the art of embellishing composed melodies that formed the basis of the art of Renaissance singers." The performers have turned to 16th-century treatises for the embellishments added to the written-out melodic lines.

Thanks to this approach of repertoire, that is frequently performed and recorded, this disc offers a different way to listen to music that many lovers of renaissance music may know very well. This may well result in them appreciating it even more. If we hear solo voices in this kind of repertoire, these are mostly higher voices, such as sopranos or tenors. Romain Bockler has a nice and fluent baritone voice, which is excellently suited to this repertoire. His ornamentation is varied, always interesting and musically convincing, and Bor Zuljan delivers engaging performances at the lute.

A word of caution is needed as far as the track-list and the programme is concerned. Several pieces are of doubtful authenticity, and this is not always indicated, except in the case of Mille regretz. I refer here to the review by Fabrice Fitch in the Gramophone, who also mentions that Quant de vous seul is definitely not by Josquinm, but from the pen of Johannes Ockeghem. This is a most curious error, which is already noticeable in the booklet, as there the translations are listed as being taken from the New Josquin Edition, except that of this piece, whose translator is not mentioned.

One aspect needs to be noted. In several items, Zuljan uses what he calls a 'bray lute'. In the preface to the Capirola Lutebook, the author writes about putting frets on the lute, "saying that one should put them as close to the string as possible in order to achieve a 'harp-like sound' (arpiza). With such a detailed description, it is difficult to imagine anything else than the buzzing sound produced by the 'bray pins' on the harps of that period. If we consider that most lutes at that time had mounted double and sometimes even triple frets, this hypothesis becomes even more plausible. Even Thomas Mace, as late as 1676, says he only recently started using single frets which he prefers for their clear sound, compared to the fuzzing sound of double frets." (Bor Zuljan) Such an instrument creates a special sound, which is clearly different from that of the 'conventional' lute. It is another feature which makes this disc an indispensable addition to any collection of renaissance recordings.

Johan van Veen (© 2020)

Relevant links:

Romain Bockler

CD Reviews