Josquin the Undead

[10.9.2021] | |
Glossa 32117

Release: October 2021

Josquin the Undead
Laments, deplorations and dances of death

Works by Josquin Desprez (c.1450-1521)
included in Tielman Susato's "Septiesme livre" (Antwerp, 1545)

1. Musae Jovis — Nicolas GOMBERT
2. Baisiez moy
3. Parfons regretz
4. Cueur langoreulx
5. Faulte d'argent
6. Petite Camusette
7. Douleur me bat
8. N'esse pas un grant desplaisir
9. Si vous n'avez autre desir (réponse) — Jean LE BRUN
10. Nymphes des bois
11. O mors inevitabilis — Hieronymus VINDERS
12. Se congie prens
13. Plusieurs regretz
14. Je me complains
15. Pour souhaitter
16. Nymphes, nappés
17. Regretz sans fin
18. Musae Jovis — Benedictus APPENZELLER

Björn Schmelzer

Andrew Hallock, Albert Riera, Andrés Miravete,
Marius Peterson, Adrian Sîrbu, Tomàs Maxé,  Arnout Malfliet
Lukas Henning — lute
Philippe Malfeyt — cittern


[7.10.2021] Remarks
24 September 2021
Todd M. McComb


The next Josquin issue (also just recorded in June, pace Stewart below) is then the provocatively titled Josquin The Undead, from Björn Schmelzer & Graindelavoix — and this has been the most striking anniversary release (yet) for me. The opening homage from Gombert is performed strongly, not really unusually, but next comes a strangely spooky version of Baisiez moy, and by the time we're to a rollicking take on Petite Camusette (the sixth track), it's more than clear that this won't be a routine reading of Josquin's late songs. The program is actually quite ordinary, though: It's taken from the Susato collection, just like that from Ensemble Clément Janequin (as reviewed here already in January), but instead of leaving the edition alone — i.e. sounding like mid-16th century Parisian chansons — as ECJ (who does refine their own vocal technique, but as noted, kept to the same basic presentation...) did, Schmelzer & company apparently undertake some sort of "un-editing" of the Susato source, producing a program that's more evocative of 15th century style. And apparently it also turns out that this was what I'd been wanting!

Regular readers will know that I'd been calling for a new reading of Josquin's chansons for a while, which I'd tempered with the appearance of the Musica Nova program. The latter is also taken (mostly) from the Susato publication, and even includes later organ works (by others), etc. That always struck me as a strange orientation for Musica Nova, as they've mostly recorded earlier music.... In any case, I do still enjoy that program, including e.g. for the great items that Graindelavoix didn't include (e.g. Incessament livre, which would've seemed to fit their project perfectly...), but Josquin The Undead has really captivated me. With the strangeness, I wasn't sure on first hearing, but by the second, it starts to seem almost as if the songs envelop me... there's a sort of sensuality & fullness of sound (despite generally one voice to a part, perhaps with modest instrumental support), a sense that one is being pulled inside another world. (There's a strongly un-mechanical quality, for instance, compared to some less flexible renditions, perhaps even evoking the later madrigal... but not quite.)

The entire program is incredibly evocative, and some of these "strange" interpretations have already "ruined" the others for me, such that the album was soon added to my personal list. Whatever happened in terms of making these performance decisions, though, is basically opaque on a technical level: There's no discussion of how they approached the scores, but there's a sort of "psychological" take on Josquin & his late output — & of course the posthumous publication does suggest its own "zombie" quality as well — suggesting a (Freudian) death drive via emphasis on repetition. (Does Schmelzer want to go on to suggest that minimalist music is about the death drive? Maybe it is.... I mean, it marked the end of another historical era, right?) I'm not actually convinced that either Josquin's musical repetition or thematics were particularly notable for his era, but it's an interesting orientation, and there's certainly a sense of the uncanny being projected here (albeit more via reworkings of familiar songs...).

Schmelzer basically disclaims historical performance, though, meaning that he's not trying to situate specifically, but there's then a sort of "timeless" late medieval quality emerging as a result, meaning that the (frequently lamenting...) mood isn't so different in (performance) style from his Binchois album (recorded in 2006), even as technique & command do improve. Again there's a sort of familiar-unfamiliar feeling, to some degree taking these songs out of time, yet... somehow capturing them more powerfully (in another register?). There's also a sort of refiguring of the whole "memorial" mood going on here... or a transfiguring, i.e. to a different register (of aching...). And as noted, this release really does show me something new about Josquin's music — even bringing a newly satisfying intimacy. So this might be Schmelzer's most powerful album yet.

Josquin the Undead
Laments, deplorations and dances of death
Graindelavoix - Björn Schmelzer

This is another take on some of the late (& thus, in a sense, summarizing Josquin's career?) material published posthumously by Susato in 1545. However, it doesn't adopt the style of a 1540s Parisian chanson, but rather — apparently — some sort of "unediting" of that source to produce more of a 15th century feel. (But then Schmelzer also disclaims adopting a specific historical context anyway....)

And I guess the result ends up being very much what I wanted to hear in terms of Josquin songs! I've found many of these versions to be almost instantly compelling, mostly using voices, but often with some instrumental support (occasionally more prominently). The Latin (memorial) pieces are also sung compellingly (although more in the usual way). There's an overall haunting of death, perhaps, as the liner notes discuss, but in many senses, these are standard themes of the era. (Josquin's apparent consciousness of history works in both directions....)

In some ways, though, this is just another performance for Graindelavoix, as it sounds like e.g. their Binchois (i.e. much earlier) music in general texture & approach. (Well, it's refined from there, particularly in terms of ornament, and male only here, but it's a very similar approach. Or maybe that remark doesn't give enough credit to the power of these newer performances....) What is different, then, is in sort of reverse engineering these scores. Anyway, I'm quite taken with the result (despite that they say nothing of the details of what they did).

It's thus been the most exciting release of the Josquin Anniversary so far for me....

Todd M. McComb