Josquin des Prez is generally regarded as the composer who, in the late 15th century, revolutionised polyphony. Although he still based many of his vocal pieces on a cantus firmus (a sequence of notes taken from plainchant or a secular melody, and sung by a part in the centre of the texture), his writing for the outer voices was not only more inventive but often sparser than that of his predecessors, whose works tended to be more rhythmically complex, but denser and more tied to the inspirational material. Josquin’s style was to pave the way for the loss of the cantus firmus in religious music altogether in the counter-Reformation works by the likes of Palestrina, and, ultimately, for the development of free-composition in all religious music in future centuries. As Martin Luther wrote: “Josquin is a master of the notes, which must do as he wishes, while other composers must follow what the notes dictate”.
Cinquecento, a group of five singers (plus their guest tenor Nicholas Todd), demonstrated Josquin’s extraordinary legacy on Friday evening through the performance of the six-part Requiem (‘In Memoriam Josquin des Prez’) by Josquin’s successor, Jean Richafort, the Requiem providing the framework on which the other works (including plainchant, works by Josquin himself, and by Benedictus Appenzeller) were hung.
Cinquecento delivered a perfectly blended sound that was almost consort-like, each voice having the same timbre, but at a different register. While this is easy enough to manage in a collection of lower voices, the different vocal production of a counter-tenor can sometimes unbalance the timbre, but Terry Wey, Cinquecento’s highest voice, is a master of subtle fusion, and whether he was singing the top line of six or of four voices, no incongruity in the texture was apparent.
Richafort’s Requiem is a magnificent work. It takes as its ‘canti firmi’ Josquin’s, Faulte d’argent (a work describing the sorrow brought by lack of money) and Circumdederunt me, a plainchant introit from Psalm 17 previously used by Josquin as the basis for another existential lament, Nymphes nappés. Sections of these texts are sung by not one voice in the middle of the texture, but two – in a canon a fifth apart. Cinquecento more than did justice to Richafort’s genius, delivering all seven of its movements with a consistently annealed sound in which the arrival and departure of voices served to modify the dynamic (albeit there were also acute dynamic changes, such as in ‘de profundo lacu’ of the Offertorium), and in which the occasional false relations provided small moments of mordancy.
The rest of the programme was cleverly constructed to complement the Requiem. Nymphes nappés and Faulte d’argent were performed in their original versions, along with the plainchant Circumdederunt me. Other plainchant extracts (such as Libera me) served to fill in the ‘musical blank spaces’ of the liturgy. Josquin’s Stabat Mater provided an example of Josquin’s more staid compositional technique that contrasted well with his other Marian hymn Inviolata – in which, through his brilliant employment of imitation and invention we could hear Josquin straining towards the completely free composition of later ages. Appenzeller’s Musae Jovis took up this style and ran with it, in a fluid and mobile manner that made the most of echo and imitation. The concert closed with a rendering of Nymphes des bois, Josquin’s lament for the death of his role-model, Johannes Ockeghem, beautifully judged for emotional impact.
Perhaps the only small cavil about the performance was the delivery of the plainchant; the group might have incorporated more of the scholarship around ‘decoration’ (quilismae and so on) to add more interest to the lines.