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John TAVERNER (? - 1545): "Imperatrix inferni - Votive Antiphons & Ritual Music"

Dir: David Skinner

rec: Nov 23 - 25, 2010, Arundel (West-Sussex), Arundel Castle, Fitzalan Chapel
Obsidian - CD707 ( 2011) (70'21")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - translations: E
Cover & track-list

Audivi vocem de caelo a 4; Ave Dei Patris filia a 5; Dum transisset sabbatum I a 5; Gaude plurimum a 5; [Hodie nobis celorum rex] - Gloria in excelsis Deo a 4; Mater Christi a 5; O splendor gloriae a 5; Quemadmodum desiderat cervus a 6a

Eleanor Cramer, Grace Davidson, Kirsty Hopkins, soprano; Ruth Massey, Clare Wilkinson, contralto; Mark Dobella, Nicholas Todd, Ashley Turnella, Simon Wall, tenor; Eamonn Dougan, Timothy Scott Whiteley, baritone; William Gaunt, Robert Macdonald, bass

John Taverner is considered one of the most important composers of sacred music in England in the first half of the 16th century. His oeuvre shows a clear development and his later works can be regarded as pointing into the future. His early works are rooted in the past, and in that respect his oeuvre reflects the development of English music in the 16th century.

Little is known about his early years. He was born in south Lincolnshire, but the year of his birth is not known; it was probably around 1490. It seems that he spent most of his life in the region where he was born, with an interlude of a couple of years when he worked in Oxford. The first signs of his activities are from 1524 when he was a lay clerk at the choir of the collegiate church in Tattershall. From 1526 to 1530 he worked as an instructor of the choristers of the choir of Cardinal College (now Christ Church) in Oxford. He then returned to Lincolmshire and became a lay clerk of the choir in the parish church of St Botolph in Boston. After some years he left the choir, apparently for financial reasons. In 1537 at the latest his association with the choir had ended, and it seems that from then on he lived as a citizen in Boston in considerable wealth, without being active in the field of music.

This disc gives an interesting survey of his oeuvre which almost entirely consists of sacred music. All religious compositions are on a Latin text. The composition of sacred music in the vernacular was a development which emerged after the accession to the throne of Edward VI in 1547. At that time Taverner had already passed away. The programme includes two large-scale Marian antiphons, Ave Dei patris filia and Gaude plurimum which are close to the style of the compositions in the Eton Choir Book. The polyphonic structure is dense, and as a result little of the text is easily understandable. This aspect is especially relevant, since this disc also includes some pieces of a later date which are more declamatory. In an interview with the Gramophone Skinner states: "It was composing in English during the six years of Edward's reign that taught composers how to set a text, which is why the Latin church music under Mary is far more 'texty'." And that tells us that Taverner's later compositions are pointing to the future, such as Mater Christi sanctissima in which much more attention is fiven to the text. In his liner-notes David Skinner sees a connection between this style and Taverner's "evangelical leanings". He has referred to various signs of Taverner having some sympathy for the Reformation. This is a matter of debate among scholars, though. Roger Bowers, in the article on Taverner in New Grove, sees few grounds for the assumption that Taverner was leaning towards the Reformation and states that "no suspicion need be entertained that the composer ever seriously pursued deeply held views in conflict with the Catholic orthodoxy of the time."

Among the works from the early part of Taverner's career are Hodie nobis coelorum rex and Audivi vocem. The former begins with a long episode in plainchant; Taverner's setting starts with the words "Gloria in excelsis Deo". Plainchant also appears in Audivi vocem and various other pieces. Quemadmodum desiderat cervus and O splendor gloriae are late works; the latter could have been commissioned by the Boston Guild of Corpus Christi, to which Taverner belonged.

I have reviewed several discs by Alamire. I was happy with their recordings of music from the time of Henry VIII and their recording of the complete Cantiones Sacrae of 1575 by Byrd and Tallis. I was far less impressed by their Tomkins disc. Fortunately the present disc is of the same quality as the two former recordings. Although the ensemble includes three sopranos, they don't dominate that much but are strong enough to make the upper part in some pieces - for instance Audivi vocem - come off perfectly. The balance within the ensemble is satisfying, and the lower voices have enough presence. The more declamatory pieces are also convincingly executed and their texts well conveyed. The plainchant is given nicely shaped interpretations (Hodie nobis celorum rex). They use a pronunciation which seems to have been practised at the time, although there are differences with the pronunciation of The Binchois Consort.

If you look for a good introduction to the oeuvre of John Taverner this disc is an excellent choice.

Johan van Veen ( 2012)

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