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"Chorus vel organa - Music from the lost palace of Westminster"

Choir of Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge; James Leitcha, Magnus Williamsonb, organ
Dir: Geoffrey Webber

rec: July 16 - 19, 2015, Ludlow (Shropshire), St Laurence's Church
Delphian Records - DCD34158 (© 2016) (66'58")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - translations: E
Cover & track-list

[in order of appearance] anon: [Processional] Sancte Dei pretiosea; Nicholas LUDFORD (c1485-c1557): Missa Laudaverunt Stephanum (Gloria); anon: [Offertory] Felix namqueb; Nicholas LUDFORD: Lady Mass Cycle VI (Friday) (Alleluia Salve Virgo); Lady Mass Cycle III (Tuesday) (Kyrie)b; William CORNYSH ([the elder] ?-1502 or [the younger] 1465-1523): Magnificat; Nicholas LUDFORD: Lady Mass Cycle IV (Wednesday) ([Sequence] Laetabundus)b; Lady Mass Cycle V (Thursday) (Agnus Dei); John SHEPPARD (c1515-1558): [Hymn] Sancte Dei pretiosea; Nicholas LUDFORD: Lady Mass Cycle II (Monday) (Gloria)b; Missa Lapidaverunt Stephanum (Agnus Dei)

The alternatim performance practice has been known in the West since the Middle Ages. The alternation between various groups of singers in the liturgy has its roots in the antiphonal psalmody in the early church. Since the 14th century the organ was sometimes used to play the verses of a chant in alternation with the choir. Organ versets are known from several countries on the continent. The earliest of them date from the renaissance, the latest probably from the 19th century. Among the most famous composers of such versets are Girolamo Frescobaldi (Fiori musicali, 1635) and François Couperin (Pieces d'orgue consistantes en deux messes, 1690).

Today alternatim compositions of the renaissance are mostly performed in an alternation of plainchant and polyphony. Some attempts have been made to give the organ its rightful place in such recordings, but that only concerns music from the continent. In music of the English renaissance the organ's place in the pre-Reformation repertoire has been left largely unexplored, as Geoffrey Webber observes in his liner-notes to the present disc. "This is not surprising, since there are no surviving English organs from this time and we have only a relatively small corpus of extant liturgical organ music from the period, mostly of this being copied in much later, post-Reformation manuscripts". This disc is probably the first which explores the alternatim performance practice with organ in alternation with a choir.

This is due to two factors. In Suffolk some parts of a renaissance organ have been found, and this has resulted in the commission to the firm of Goetze & Gwynn to build an instrument in the style of an early 16th-century organ, the so-called St Teilo organ played in this recording. Secondly, Magnus Williamson has specialized in improvisations in the style of the period which allows a historically plausible connection between organ and choir in pre-Reformation sacred repertoire.

The starting point for the choice of repertoire is indicated in this disc's subtitle. The 'lost palace of Westminster' refers to the collegiate chapel of St Stephen, founded by Edward I and raised into a college by Edward III in 1348. It was dissolved in 1548 when the building became the first permanent meeting-place of the House of Commons. Considering the name of the chapel the choice of music connected to the Feast of St Stephen - the first martyr in history, celebrated on 26 December - was obvious. This is not something like a liturgical reconstruction: the programme also includes music which is not related to St Stephen. A key figure in the programme is Nicholas Ludford, employed at St Stephen's College from around the early 1520s. He is the composer of the Missa Lapidaverunt Stephanum from which the Gloria and Agnus Dei are performed. The programme opens with the processional responsory Sancte Dei pretiose. It is taken from the 1519 edition of the Sarum Antiphoner where it has the indication chorus vel organa (choir or organ). Here we hear choir and organ in alternation.

Ludford's oeuvre includes seven alternatim Lady Masses; the programme includes extracts from five of them. In three of these we hear the choir in alternation with the organ. In the sequence Laetabundus from the fourth Lady Mass Magnus Williamson improvises upon the plainsong. In the Kyrie from the third Mass he uses two organ versets by an anonymous composer from around 1530, whereas the other versets are devised upon squares. One of the partbooks which include these Lady Masses contains a single polyphonic line for which no equivalent music is provided in the other books. "Scholars have argues that these single lines belong to a repertory of melodic fragments known mysteriously as 'squares'. Instead of improvising on chant, as was normal, organists would improvise on a single line extracted from a polyphonic composition, either sacred or secular". This practice is also applied in the Gloria from the second Lady Mass.

Two other composers are represented. It is not totally clear who composed the Magnificat; it was either William Cornysh the elder (?-c1502) or his son with the same Christian name (?-1523). Both worked in the neighbourhood of St Stephen's College. This is another alternatim composition; the chant is performed here in faburden, a style of improvised polyphony which was quite common at the time. John Sheppard was one of the Gentlemen in the Royal Chapel in the 1550s; earlier he was at Magdalen College in Oxford. In his hymn Sancte Dei pretiose James Leitch plays two anonymous versets from the mid-16th century.

Some of the pieces are sung by the full choir (27 voices), whereas the passages for reduced voices are sung by soloists from the choir. It may be impossible to know how many singers were involved in Ludford's time; I probably would have preferred a somewhat smaller ensemble. The singing is fine, though, both by the full choir and by the soloists, but in the latter case the application of some clearly audible vibrato is disappointing and not tenable from a historical point of view. Magnus Williamson deserves much praise for his improvisations. This disc documents a hardly-known practice in renaissance England, and it is to be hoped that more attempts will be made to explore it. The fact that an appropriate organ is available should greatly encourage organists to pay attention to the art of improvisation in the style of the renaissance.

This is a ground-breaking recording which deserves the attention of every lover of renaissance polyphony.

Johan van Veen (© 2017)

Relevant links:

Choir of Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge

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