Freshening Up Josquin With A Scholarly Flair, Down-To-Earth Clarity

Jesse Rodin leads his vocal ensemble, Cut Circle, on a new recording, ‘Josquin. I: Motets & Chansons.’

Josquin. I: Motets & Chansons. Cut Circle. Jesse Rodin, director. Musique en Wallonie MEW2307. Total time 62:52.

DIGITAL REVIEW – Stanford University musicologist Jesse Rodin has applied a rigorous methodology to isolate the core compositional techniques of Renaissance composer Josquin des Prez. By doing so, he believes he has finally rid the Josquin corpus of works falsely attributed to the composer for centuries. Rodin and his vocal ensemble, Cut Circle, display his results in Josquin. I: Motets & Chansons, a recording for the Musique en Wallonie label. The winnowing makes a great archive even greater.

Fans of early vocal music will want to keep track of the Musique en Wallonie catalog. As the name implies, this Belgian company is committed to recording medieval through Baroque music from the culturally rich Wallonia region, which includes Brussels. Although Josquin worked mostly in Italy, they are proud to call him a native son.

The Cut Circle album was supposed to come out in 2021, the 500th anniversary of Josquin’s death, but the pandemic delayed completion for two years. It was worth the wait. Everything about Josquin seems to have been reconsidered for this performance.

The composer’s most famous work, “Ave Maria … virgo serena,” opens the set of seven motets. Rodin conducts it at a pace much brisker than usual. There is one voice assigned to each part. That in itself is not unusual, but the transparency offered by the small group is enhanced by the way the singers produce sound. They seem to focus on the front and top of their vocal apparatus, the way a person without classical training would naturally sing. It takes some adjustment on the listener’s part to appreciate it, but it does seem to be an effective strategy.

Again, the result is clarity. It’s also a deeply human sound — “real,” if you will, not rarified or operatic. It removes the expected loftiness from the music, making Josquin’s emotional use of rhythm and dissonance feel like a friend telling you a secret. This is a departure from most Josquin recordings, which present his music as ineffable, a distant beauty, a sonic Sistine Chapel. Not everyone will like this change. It requires more active listening rather than letting the polyphony be a background wash of blurred colors.

In his accompanying essay, Rodin mentions an interesting element of his historically informed approach: These works were designed for the elite, so they would have been sung in small spaces, often with tapestries on the walls preventing reverberation. “The key to unlocking what is most special about his music is ensuring that the individual voices are audible,” he writes. Rodin himself, along with Jesse Lewis, produced and engineered the recording, creating a thrillingly intimate sound (especially through headphones).

That intimacy does not prevent richness in the texture when appropriate. Cut Circle comprises seven singers, who appear in various configurations of three to six voices. The motet “Pater noster … Ave Maria,” written in six-part counterpoint, has a satisfyingly full sound.

Cut Circle’s everyman style of singing works especially well for the pieces Josquin designed to display his puzzle-loving mind. The motet “Ut Phebi radiis/Ut re mi fa sol la” is a fine example. For the first half of the song, each line starts with one or more pitches of a rising six-note scale — a hexachord, sung on the syllables that were used before the modern “do, re, mi” came into practice. Each line then continues with Latin lyrics comparing the power of the Virgin Mary to that of King Solomon and of the oars of sailors looking for the Golden Fleece. In the second half, as the poem continues, the scale reverses course.

The remainder of the album is a collection of secular songs. Some are sad or dark, such as “Nimphes, nappées/Circumdederunt me,” in which chromaticism represents the poet’s longing for death. But there are also hints of fun, showing quite a different side of Josquin. In “Baisiez moy,” someone tries to convince his lover to kiss him. She refuses, explaining, “If I were to do something silly, my mother would regret it.” In the tradition of madrigals, Josquin writes the whole conversation for four voices in imitative counterpoint rather than assigning one voice per character. Cut Circle savors the interplay of musical ideas, singing the 16th-century French text with hearty commitment and a wink and a nod to the poem’s implied naughtiness.

In the best tradition of academia, Rodin wants everyone to have access to his years of labor. Thus, with the help of technical director Craig Sapp and fellow scholar Joshua Rifkin, he has put together the impressive Josquin Research Project, which offers free digital scores of not only Josquin’s own oeuvre but also pieces by his contemporaries. Any curious and determined listener can discover the ingredients that make the Josquin compositional style so delicious.