Tuesday 11 February 2020

Bringing the music to vibrant life: Owen Rees & Contrapunctus explore the enthusiasm for Josquin's music in 16th century Spain

Salve, Salve, Salve: Josquin's Spanish legacy - Morales, Guerrero, Victoria, Josquin Desprez; Contrapunctus, Owen Rees; Signum Classics
Salve, Salve, Salve: Josquin's Spanish legacy - Morales, Guerrero, Victoria, Josquin Desprez; Contrapunctus, Owen Rees; Signum Classics
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 5 February 2020 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
The surprising influence of Josquin on 16th century Spanish composers is explored by Contrapunctus who bring what might have been simply an academic exercise to vibrant life

Under the title Salve, Salve, Salve: Josquin's Spanish legacy on Signum Classics, Owen Rees and Contrapunctus give us music by Morales, Guerrero, Victoria and Josquin, with Victoria's Missa Gaudeamus at the disc's centre.

At first sight this might seem like a strange mix of pieces, motets by two 16th century Spanish composers, Morales and Guerrero, a mass by a late 16th century composer based for much of his life in Rome, Victoria, and a motet by 15th century French composer Josquin, also based for much of his life in Italy. But Owen Rees' lucid and informative booklet article explains all and demonstrates the network of linkages between the various works.

At the heart of the disc is the enthusiasm which developed in 16th century Spain for the music of Josquin Desprez, large quantities of his music being copied into cathedral music books and published in anthologies. Morales, Guerrero and Victoria, the three greatest Spanish composers of the day, all produced work directly inspired by Josquin's music. It helped that one of the standard compositional techniques for masses at the time was to base them on pre-existing material as some sort of homage. You took elements from a motet or even a popular song (L'Homme Arme anyone?) and used them in new piece. Part of it was homage, part of it was showing your cleverness in creating something new out of something pre-existing, and making it your own.

But there is another important linkage between the works on the disc, ostinato. This was a technique popular with Iberian composers at the time, you took your pre-existing motif and repeated it obsessively throughout the new piece. It sounds rather academic and dry, trying to create new music around a pre-existing, repeated musical line, but in fact these composers created something vibrant and wonderful.

So on this disc, we start with Morales' motet Jubliate Deo omnis terra written for a celebration of a rare outbreak of peace between France and Spain in 1538 (it didn't last) brokered by the Pope. For celebrations at which the King of Spain (and Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V), the King of France (Francis I) and the Pope (Paul III) were present Morales wrote a motet where five voices use a text praising the three and lauding peace, but the sixth voice has an ostinato phrase 'gaudeamus' (let us rejoice). In fact the ostinato phrase is a fragment of plainchant for the Introit at mass for a number of feast days, 'Gaudeamus omnes in Domino' so it would be familiar to the listeners, and we get the Introit on the disc. But there is another link, Josquin's Missa gaudeamus uses the same ostinato phrase, almost certainly no coincidence.

That Morales' motet was performed at such a high profile event must have given it prestige, and when Victoria published his first book of masses in Venice in 1576 he included his Missa Gaudeamus which is based on Morales' motet. In fact, Victoria's mass is known from a manuscript version too, it is in a choir-book at Toledo cathedral but Victoria's published version reworks the material significantly. By including the motto theme from the motet, Victoria links his mass not only to Morales but to Josquin and other musical elements in the mass point to Victoria's homage to Josquin's mass. An homage which would, presumably, be enjoyed mainly by the learned, i.e. those that could afford to buy Victoria's published book.

One of Josquin's other influential works was his motet Salve Regina, a piece which uses a significant amount of ostinato technique and which found pride of place when copied into a book of music for Marian services at Seville Cathedral in 1550.  For this motet Josquin presents a dazzling use of the plainchant Salve Regina (heard on the disc) thus giving listeners the ability to pick out and enjoy the musical puzzle of his piece, which is also terrific music.  Victoria's own Salve Regina setting, published in his first book of motets and masses in 1572, shows direct homage to Josquin.

The older composer Guerrero, an acquaintance of Victoria's, showed his own homage to Josquin by using ostinato techniques similar to those in Josquin's motet Miserere mei Deus (unfortunately not on the disc), for Guerroro's motet Surge propera, amica mea. And the final work on the disc is Guerroro's best known motet, Ave virgo sanctissima,  which itself uses the same motif as Josquin's and Victoria's Salve regina settings.

All this might make a fine, academic exercise if it wasn't for the fact that under Owen Rees' sympathetic direction the nine or ten young singers of Contrapunctus (many of whom are familiar from other groups) sing with such vividness and vibrancy that the music lives its own independent life. At times there is a punchy quality to the music making which suits the robustness of this music, yet the singers can also bring things right down whilst keeping that sense of intertwining firm, yet vibrant lines.

We don't really know what Spanish choirs of the 16th century sounded like, and some indeed used falsettists on the top line rather than boys, and for celebratory occasions there would be instruments added. But the trick with this music is to make it live and to make it your own, Rees and Contrapunctus certainly do that.

This is a programme which can be enjoyed simply as a mass sequence - Introits, Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Salve Regina, Sanctus, Agnus Dei, motets, or you can listen out for all the fascinating linkages. My only real complaint is that the disc is simply too short, it would have been nice to have been able to hear Josquin's Miserere mei Deus and something from his own Missa Gaudeamus!

Owen Rees and Contrapunctus
Owen Rees and Contrapunctus
Cristobal de Morales (c1550 - 1553) - Jubilate Deo omnis terra
Chant - Gaudeamus omnes in Domino
Tomas Luis de Victoria (c1548 - 1611) - Missa Gaudeamus
Tomas Luis de Victoria - Salve regina
Franciso Guerrero (1527/8-1599) - Ave virgo sanctissima
Chant - Salve regina
Josquin Desprez (c1450-1521) - Salve regina
Franciso Guerrero - Surge propera amica mea
Contrapunctus (Esther Brazil, Amy Carson, Amy Howarth, Elspeth Piggott, Roy Stuart-Rees, Rory McLeery, Matthew Venner, Guy Cutting, Gareth Treseder, Ashley Turnell, Greg Skidmore, Giles Underwood)
Owen Rees (director)
Recorded in the church of St Michael and All Angels, Oxford (13-15 March 2019)

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