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Nicholas LUDFORD (c1485 - 1557): Missa Benedicta et venerabilis & Votive antiphons

Choir of New College, Oxford; Nicholas Wearne, organ
Dir: Edward Higginbottom
rec: July 11 - 14, 2007, Sarrebourg (Moselle), Église Saint-Martin de Hoff
K617 - K617206 (© 2008) (63'13")

Ave cuius conceptio; Domine Jesu Christe; Missa Benedicta et venerabilis

Sacred music of the English renaissance belongs to the core repertoire of vocal ensembles and choirs. Music by Byrd and Tallis, and even by older masters like Taverner and Sheppard is regularly performed and recorded. But the name of Nicholas Ludford almost never appears on concert programmes, and as far as I know only three discs devoted to his music were available until now (all with The Cardinall's Musick, directed by Andrew Carwood, on ASV Gaudeamus).

One of the reasons of this neglect could be that there isn't that much known about him. During his life he isn't often mentioned, and after his death his name disappears. Ludford was associated to St Stephen's Chapel, the royal chapel in the Palace of Westminster, during the reign of Henry VIII. His precise position isn't quite clear, but considering his vocal compositions he must have had some responsibility for the choral services. In 1548 he was pensioned off when St Stephen's Chapel was dissolved.

Ludford's extant oeuvre isn't very large: a number of masses, some of them following the alternatim practice, a Magnificat and several votive antiphons. Two specimen of the latter category open and close this disc. The votive antiphon - which is a modern term - appears in England in the 15th century. It is a polyphonic piece sung after the end of an Office (for instance Vespers or Compline). It has a free text and is performed in honour of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Strictly speaking Domine Jesu Christe is not a votive antiphon as it is not connected to Mary. Here Jesus Christ is invoked and asked for the peace of God in time of death. Ave cuius conceptio is an antiphon in praise of the conception and birth of Mary, her "devout humility", "true virginity" and "angelic virtues". Both antiphons are in 5 parts, and both contain some passages for two voices, most remarkably of which are passages for soprano and bass.

The Missa Benedicta et venerabilis derives its name from the text of the Gradual for feasts of the Blessed Virgin Mary: "Blessed and Honoured is the Virgin Mary, who, without stain, has become the mother of our Saviour". It is written for six voices, with two tenors and two basses. Like in the votive antiphons there are some passages for reduced voices. Ludford gives special attention to the name of "Jesu Christe", for instance by turning to homophony.

The music of Ludford was written in a period which saw many long extended sacred works, and the compositions recorded here are no exception: the votive antiphons take 8 and almost 9 minutes respectively, and the Sanctus and Benedictus of the Mass last 10 minutes. It is not that passages from the text are often repeated, but Ludford's music is very melismatic, and many words and even syllables are set to long strings of notes.

So this music needs to be listened to with great concentration. If one does so, one is richly rewarded, because Ludford's music is really very beautiful, and of the same standard as the best music of his time. The performances by the Choir of New College, Oxford have all the qualities to demonstrate the splendour of this music. The sound of the choir is strong in all ranges, the trebles have very fine voices and show great flexibility in their sometimes highly elaborate parts. The lower voices have the right amount of sonority and power, as a result of which these performances don't suffer from the dominance of the sopranos, as is often the case with performances of this repertoire. A recording like this only goes to strengthen my view that there is no better way of performing this kind of repertoire than with an ensemble of boys and men. And this particular choir is one of the best in the business.

The recording is also excellent, and has taken place in ideal acoustical circumstances. The atmosphere is just spatial enough, without being too reverberant, which allows the choral sound to blossom.

Nobody interested in English polyphony should miss this splendid recording.

Johan van Veen (© 2009)

Relevant links:

Choir of New College, Oxford

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