musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Sacred music of the Tudor era

[I] John SHEPPARD (c1515-1558): "Media vita"
stile antico

rec: March 2009, London, All Hallows Church, Gospel Oak
Harmonia mundi - HMU 807509 (© 2010) (70'16")

[II] Robert WHITE (c1538-1574): "Hymns, Psalms & Lamentations"
Dir: Gabriel Crouch

rec: August 7 - 9, 2008, London, All Hallows Church, Gospel Oak
SignumRecords - SIGCD134 (© 2009) (73'19")

[III] Thomas TALLIS (c1505-1585): "Sacred Music in Latin"
Ensemble européen William Byrd
Dir: Graham O'Reilly

rec: 2009, Paris, Église Saint Michel des Batignolles
Passacaille - 963 (© 2009) (70'21")

[I] Christ rising again; Gaude, gaude, gaude Maria; Haste thee, O God; I give you a new commandment; Media vita; Te Deum; The Lord's Prayer
[II] Ad te levavi oculos meos; Christe qui lux es et dies (I); Christe qui lux es et dies (IV); Domine quis habitabit (III); Exaudiat te, Dominus; Lamentationes Jeremiae a 6; Manus tuae fecerunt me; Miserere mei, Deus
[III] Audivi vocem de caelo; Dum transissit Sabbatum; Gaude gloriosa Dei mater; Lamentationes Jeremiae, pars 2; Loquebantur variis linguis; Salve intemerata Virgo Maria; Suscipe quaeso Domine

[I] Helen Ashby, Kate Ashby, Rebecca Hickey, soprano; Emma Ashby, Eleanor Harries, Carris Jones, contralto; Jim Clements, Julian Forbes, Andrew Griffiths, Benedict Hymas, tenor; Will Dawes, David Stuart, baritone; Oliver Hunt, Matthew O'Donovan, bass
David Allsopp, Mark Chambers, alto; Richard Butler, Christopher Watson, tenor; Gabriel Crouch, Nigel Short, baritone; William Gaunt, Jimmy Holliday, bass
Kaoli Isshiki, Raphaële Kennedy, soprano; Brigitte Vinson, Pascal Bertin, mean; Bruno Boterf, Benoît Porcherot, contratenor; Vincent Bouchot, tenor; Geoffroy Buffière, Paul Willenbrock, bass

The composers who are represented on the three discs to be reviewed here were more or less contemporaries. They all had to deal with the trials and tribulations which were the result of the religious and political upheavals in the middle of the 16th century. It was in particular the shifts in the balance between Protestantism and Roman-Catholicism which left their marks in their oeuvre.

When under Henry VIII the separation from the Roman-Catholic took place the religious ceremonies and rituals changed. The elaborate Latin music which was common at the time was increasingly replaced by music in the vernacular, often technically less demanding and syllabic in nature. This process was intensified under Henry's son Edward VI. When he died at the age of 15, he was succeeded by his half-sister Mary. As she was Roman Catholic she tried to restore the old Church's dominance, and in the wake of this the Latin liturgy was restored as well. But she only ruled for five years, and after her death in 1558 she was succeeded by her Protestant half-sister Elizabeth. Under her rule the religious balance shifted again, and as a result the Latin liturgy was substituted by a liturgy in the vernacular. The Book of Common Prayer was the symbol of this change.

The music of John Sheppard, Robert Whyte and Thomas Tallis reflects the various liturgical reforms in the decades around 1550.

John Sheppard's works in Latin are long and complicated, and characterised by dense polyphony. The setting of the Te Deum is probably the oldest piece dating from the reign of Henry VIII (until 1547). It is an alternatim setting of this hymn from the 4th century. Here we hear the features of Sheppard's Latin church music, especially the wide range of the parts, with very high treble parts.

It seems that the responsory Gaude, gaude, gaude Maria dates from the 1550s, when Mary Tudor was reigning and England returned to Roman Catholicism for a while. This piece contains a number of false relations which are characteristic of the sacred music of that time. The pièce de résistance is the very long antiphon Media vita, which dates from the same time, and takes more than 25 minutes in this performance. It contains a plainchant setting of the Nunc dimittis, but it is the polyphony which takes much time, especially because of the slow tempo which Sheppard seems to have preferred, considering the way the music has been written down. It is here that stile antico shows its qualities to the full. This magnificent piece is magnificently performed, with beautifully shaped lines, a great mastery of the virtuoso lines and brillant ensemble. The singing is relaxed, without any tension in the upper parts. The performance is captivating from beginning to end.

The pieces on English text are from the reign of Edward when the Church of England, founded by his father Henry VIII, was moving towards the Reformation which had taken place on the continent. As a result much emphasis was laid on textual clarity, and because of that these pieces contain passages with syllabic settings of the words. Haste thee, O God is of doubtful authenticity but it is a beautiful piece which contains a closer connection between text and music than in any other piece on this disc. It is a setting of Psalm 70, and when those "that seek after my soul" are quoted their words "There, there!" get a chordal setting. And later, the words "as for me, I am poor and in misery" the pitch is low and the voices move slowly, only to liven up on the next phrase: "haste thee unto me, O Lord". In these English pieces stile antico delivers the text very well and their sound is crisp and clear.

Although White's oeuvre dates from the Elizabethan era it is mostly written on Latin texts. There are various explanations for this. Elizabeth was less radical in her views on liturgy than Edward VI, and Latin music was performed in public. But it is also possible that White's music was written for private Roman Catholic services.

This disc shows his versatility. Gallicantus has chosen two of his settings of Christe, qui lux es et dies, which are very different. Both are alternatim settings, but whereas in version IV the even verses are set to elaborate polyphony, in version I the words are set in syllabic style which is very moving in its simplicity.

Robert White set the Lamentationes Jeremiae twice, once for five and once for six voices. Here we get the 6-part version in which duets, trios and quartets in the verses contrast with the full sound of the six voices in the Hebrew letters. Some of these contain pretty strong dissonances. It is a magnificent setting whose expression is fully explored in the splendid performance of Gallicantus.

The largest part of the programme contains of five psalm settings. And again White uses various ways to set the words to music. One of the highlights is Psalm 50 (51), Miserere mei, Deus, where imitation between the voices is alternating with chordal passages. The contrasted scoring of the Lamentations is also a feature of Exaudiat te and Manus tuae. The blending of the voices of Gallicantus is excellent, and that comes especially to the fore in the passages for reduced forces. The singers produce a beautiful, full sound, clear and flexible. The only criticism I can think of is that the upper voices are perhaps a little too dominant.

Whereas the music of John Sheppard and Robert White doesn't belong to the standard repertoire, the oeuvre of Thomas Tallis is frequently performed and recorded. As his career spans the periods of office of the four monarchs of the 16th century his output reflects the liturgical changes during this time. Although Tallis has written music on English texts the whole programme the Ensemble européen William Byrd has recorded consists of Latin pieces.

Graham O'Reilly, in his extensive and informative programme notes, explains the angle from which this repertoire has been interpreted. "In this recording, we have been guided by the circumstances of performance that this music may have had in the Elizabethan period. We do not seek to recreate the splendour, ceremony and high solemnity which must have accompanied its first performance in the Chapel Royal or some such august institution. Rather we aim for the intimate atmosphere of a chamber performance, generally with one voice to a part, with the exchange and sharing of musical ideas which polyphony, by its very nature, always seems to demand".

This guarantees that this disc, although all pieces on the programme have been recorded more than once before, is a worthwhile addition to the catalogue. It gives some idea of how Tallis' music could have been performed in private homes and chapels. If one is used to listen to this repertoire in more spatial surroundings this approach is something one has to get used to in order to fully appreciate it. I certainly had the experience something was missing.

But it is worth the effort, and the ensemble is doing a fine job in realising this approach to Tallis' music. The singers have adapted very well to the acoustical circumstances which are so different from those they are probably more used to. I assume it is also harder to sing polyphony in a more intimate atmosphere than in a larger space with more reverberation. Musically it all works quite well, and the merit of these performances is that the lyrics are more clearly audible than in a larger venue.

All three discs in their own way shed light on a highly interesting period in English music history, and show the quality of the music written at that time. As all three ensembles deliver stylish performances there is every reason to recommend them.

Johan van Veen (© 2010)

Relevant links:

Ensemble européen William Byrd
stile antico

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