Taverner & Tudor Music Vol 2 / Hillier, Ars Nova Copenhagen
This is the second of Ars Nova Copenhagen’s Taverner discs. The first centred on Taverner’s Western Wynde Mass (see review) and at least one commentator said that it was the version which succeeded best in dispelling his doubts about whether the mass ever quite transcends the four-square element in its construction.
This new disc uses Taverner’s Gloria Tibi Trinitas mass as its main work. Like the first disc, Paul Hillier intersperses the movements of the mass with other motets and plainchant to create a more liturgical feel. They open the disc with Fayrfax’s glorious Magnificat ‘Regale’ from the Eton Choir Book and continue with motets by White, Byrd and Tallis.
The presence of the Fayrfax makes this disc something of a hymn to the great Tudor choir books. The Taverner mass is found in the Forrest-Heather part-books which were compiled for use at Cardinal College, where Taverner was choirmaster. His time there proved to be brief as the choral provision at the college was vastly reduced on Cardinal Wolsey’s fall.
The title of the Taverner mass comes from the plainchant ‘Gloria tibi Trinitas’ which is a Vespers antiphon for Trinity Sunday. Hilliard and Ars Nova Copenhagen include the plainchant propers for Trinity Sunday, thus allowing us to hear the plainchant which forms the cantus firmus of the mass.
The choir of Cardinal College comprised 16 choristers and 12 clerkes; Ars Nova Copenhagen deploys some 15 to 17 singers, with women sopranos and altos. They make a goodly noise and the performances on this disc are notable for the excitement and vigour which the singers bring to this music.
Fayrfax came from the previous generation to Taverner, and his elaborate 5-part Magnificat ‘Regale’ is filled with rhythmic energy and brilliantly elaborate contrapuntal parts. It makes an apt complement to Taverner’s 6-part Missa Gloria Tibi Trinitas. The choir are similarly glorious in this music. In both works, the solo sections work very well, with the unnamed single voices providing fine contrast to the larger-scale full passages. The tessitura of the soprano part occasionally seems to give the singers pause. The top line of both works is high, in the typical early Tudor manner but generally the sopranos are ideally flexible and light.
Rather annoyingly the CD liner notes do not indicate what pitch the Taverner is sung at and, lacking a printed score, I am entirely unable to determine whether Hillier performs the mass at the high pitch which modern scholarship suggests, but I suspect that they don’t.
Hillier has obviously urged his singers on vigorously and there are one or two passages, particularly in the Magnificat, where you can feel the choir being goaded on by Hillier and just failing to follow him. This is a small point and does not greatly detract from the performance; frankly I am not sure I would have noticed but at the moment I am rehearsing the Magnificat with my own group so was paying particular heed to it.
Robert White came from a later generation than Taverner. He seems to have had a fondness for the Vespers hymn Christe ui lux es et dies because he made four settings of it. Each alternates chant with a setting which is woven around the chant. Here Hillier and his group perform the final two, each a gentle and tiny masterpiece. Byrd made his own setting of the same words and this setting is also included on the disc. In it Byrd sets himself a technical challenge - and succeeds, of course. Each verse has the chant threaded through it, but in a steadily higher voice starting with bass in verse 1 and ending with soprano in verse 5. Part of the charm of Byrd’s technical solution is that it is possible to appreciate the piece without ever knowing this. The group finishes with Tallis’s Te lucis ante terminum - another masterly little work.
The group is recorded in quite a generous acoustic, but the recording preserves the vigour and clarity of their singing and individual lines have both clarity and vitality.
The CD booklet includes an informative article by Sally Dunkley together with full texts and translations.
Having said how much I enjoyed this disc, then I have to confess that there is one place where you ought to look if you are interested in a performance of Taverner’s Missa Gloria Tibi Trinitas. In 2007 Christ Church Cathedral Choir - the present day successors to Taverner’s Cardinal College Choir - issued a recording of the mass under their conductor Stephen Darlington. This was the first recording of the work by the sort of choir - men and boys - which Taverner had in mind. And it is a release which demands to be taken seriously. So the choice is yours, depending on your views on the boy trebles v. female sopranos controversy.
This is definitely a disc for those for whom many recordings of music from this period come into the perfect but cool category. Hillier and his singers, whilst retaining sufficient perfection, bring the elaborate music brilliantly to life.
You might hear more polished and perfect performances than this one. But I don’t think you will hear one which excites more, or one which better captures the rhythmic vitality of this brilliant but tricky music.
-- Robert Hugill, MusicWeb International
Catalog Number: 8226056
Composer: Anonymous, John Taverner, Robert Fayrfax, Robert White, Thomas Tallis
Conductor: Paul Hillier
Orchestra/Ensemble: Ars Nova Copenhagen