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CD reviews

Tudor Polyphony

[I] "Ceremony and Devotion - Music for the Tudors"
The Sixteen
Dir: Harry Christophers

rec: Oct 2009, London, All Hallows Church, Gospel Oak
Coro - COR16077 ( 2010) (75'48")

[II] "Tudor City"
New York Polyphony

rec: June 2009, New York, N.Y., Cathedral Church of St John th Divine
AVIE - AV2186 ( 2010) (62'51")

[I] William BYRD (c1540-1623): Domine, praestolamur a 5 [1]; Haec dies a 6 [2]; Infelix ego a 6 [2]; Laudibus in sanctis a 5 [2]; plainchant (Sarum use): Veni creator spiritus; John SHEPPARD (c1515-1558): Media vita in morte sumus a 6; Sacris solemniis iuncta sint gaudia a 8; Thomas TALLIS (c1505-1585): Iam Christus astra ascenderat a 5; Jesu salvator saeculi, verbum patris a 5; Miserere nostri a 7
[II] anon: Flos regalis a 4; William BYRD: Ave verum corpus a 4 [3]; William CORNYSH (?-1523): Gaude virgo mater Christi a 4; John DUNSTABLE (c1380-1453): Speciosa facta es a 3; Walter LAMBE (c1450/51-1499): Stella caeli a 4; Andrew SMITH (b1970): Flos regalis a 4; Magnificat 4; Surrexit Christus a 4; To mock your reign a 4; Thomas TALLIS: Audivi vocem a 4; Nine Tunes from Archbishop Parker's Psalter a 4: 1st Tune (Man blest no doubt); 3rd Tune (Why fum'th in fight); 4th Tune (O come in one to praise the Lord); 6th Tune (Expend, O Lord, my plaint of Word); 8th Tune (God grant with grace); John TAVERNER (c1495-1560?): Magnificat a 4; Christopher TYE (c1505-1572): In pace a 4

(Sources: William Byrd, [1] Liber primus sacrarum cantionum [Cantiones sacrae], 1589; [2] Liber secundus sacrarum cantionum [Cantiones sacrae], 1591; [3] Gradualia ac cantiones sacrae, 1605)

[I] Julie Cooper, Grace Davidson, Julia Doyle, Kirsty Hopkins, Charlotte Mobbs, soprano; Sally Dunkley, Caroline Trevor, mean; Ian Aitkenhead, David Clegg, William Missin, Christopher Royall, alto; Simon Berridge, Jeremy Budd, Mark Dobell, David Roy, tenor; Ben Davies, Eamonn Dougan, Timothy Jones, Stuart Young, bass
[II] Geoffrey Williams, alto; Geoffrey Silver, tenor; Scott Dispensa, baritone; Craig Phillips, bass

The two discs to be reviewed here all focus on one of the most fruitful periods in English music history. The Tudor era roughly spans the 16th century, the time four Tudor monarchs were ruling England: Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary Tudor - nicknamed 'Bloody Mary' - and Elizabeth I. This century saw changes in musical styles, but was first and foremost dominated by religious changes, and as a result of this political and liturgical turmoils. The breakaway from the Roman Catholic Church by Henry VIII was a great change in itself, but what followed was causing even greater shocks.

When Henry died he was succeeded by his son Edward who came under the influence of Reformers who wanted to go much further in reforming the church, along the lines of the Reformation taking place on the continent. Edward died very young, and was succeeded by his half-sister Mary, who was a stauch Roman Catholic and tried to restore the dominance of the Church of Rome. Her reign didn't last long either: she died after only five years. She was succeeded by her half-sister Elizabeth I, who was a protestant and as a result the balance of power in religous matters shifted back again. This, of course, had great influence on the liturgy.

The discs reflect the changes in liturgical practice during the 16th century. The American vocal quartet New York Polyphony has chosen pieces from the whole period, but starting with pieces from before the Tudor period, by John Dunstable and an anonymous piece from the Worcester Fragments. Walter Lambe's Stella caeli could also be from before the reign of Henry VIII. There is some uncertainty about the identity of William Cornysh. All pieces which have been handed down are attributed to the William Cornysh who died in 1523 (as in this recording). But recent research suggests they could have been written by another composer of that name, who died around 1502, and who may have been the father of the former Cornysh. This disc includes pieces which are written under the influence of protestantism, in particular the tunes which Thomas Tallis wrote for texts from Archbishop Parker's Psalter, which are rhymed versions of the Psalms in the vernacular. Both Tallis and William Byrd, whose well-known motet Ave verum corpus opens this disc, both remained faithful to the Roman Catholic Church. That didn't prevent them from writing music which was suitable for the liturgy of the Church of England.

In addition to the renaissance repertoire New York Polyphony sings four pieces by the American contemporary composer Andrew Smith - who also wrote the liner-notes in the booklet - which despite their different harmonic language, fit quite well into this programme. Both their character and the texts they are based upon are not that different from the music of the Tudor era. In To mock your reign he even quotes one of Tallis's Tunes from Archbishop Parker's Psalter: Why fum'th in fight, which is based on Psalm 2. In his composition Smith refers to the same Psalm.

New York Polyphony is a male quartet as there are others, like the Hilliard Ensemble or the Orlando Consort. But its sound is different in that the upper voice is less dominant than in other quartets of this kind. In fact, the lower voices rather tend to dominate which results in a sound which is quite different from that of the quartets mentioned above. I also think that various pieces have been transposed down, as the alto doesn't seem to have a very high tessitura anyway. Overall I have enjoyed these performances as the singing is good and the interpretations are mostly convincing. In the oldest pieces I could imagine a more rhythmically lively performance. In Tallis' tunes the upper voice is a bit underexposed. But the programme is interesting and varied and even though I don't like contemporary music Andrew Smith's compositions are well worth investigating. The church where this recording was made is, according to the booklet, one of the world's largest. It must be a great experience to sing there, but for a recording it is less suitable. This repertoire needs some space, but the reverberation in this recording is too much.

The Sixteen is one of the best-known vocal ensembles which doesn't only sing renaissance music but whose reputation is to a large extent based on the kind of repertoire they are singing at the disc "Ceremony and Devotion". It is devoted to music of three of the main composers from the 16th century, representing three generations: John Sheppard, Thomas Tallis and William Byrd, the latter having been a pupil of the second. Sheppard was active as a composer during the reigns of three monarchs: Henry VIII, Edward VI and Mary Tudor. This is reflected in his oeuvre which contains pieces on Latin texts as well as in English. His Latin works are mostly rather long and complicated, with a dense polyphony. The large-scale Media vita in morte sumus takes about 25 minutes, and contains a plainchant setting of the Nunc dimittis. It is not quite clear whether Sheppard always has remained a Roman Catholic; in the case of Tallis and Byrd there is no doubt. They had to give and take in order to save their skin and to be able to continue composing sacred music. Part of their output was written for masses which took place in the private chapels of members of the aristocracy who did belong to the so-called 'recusants'. In some of their compositions they seem to refer specifically to the hardship they experienced because of their religious conviction, like Byrd's Infelix ego or his Domine, praestolamur.

Completely different in character is Laudibus in sanctis, a paraphrase of Psalm 150, with eloquent text expression in the manner of a sacred madrigal. Another example of expression can be found in Tallis's Miserere nostri which is a setting of just three words: "Miserere nostri, Domine", in which six of the seven parts are canonic. Apart from some quite gloomy pieces this disc contains some joyful compositions for Easter by Tallis: Jesu, salvator saeculi and Iam Christus astra ascenderat, both alternatim settings. The performances are generally enjoyable. Infelix ego and Miserere nostri get intense performances, and Byrd's Laudibus in sanctis is brilliantly sung. Media vita in morte sumus is given a good performance, but sometimes I find the tenors sounding a little stressed. Overall I prefer the recording of Stile Antico ( is more relaxed. What I have problems with in this recording is the performance of plainchant, which is sung alternately by men and women, and sometimes by the whole ensemble. Historically this is rather questionable. In the Nunc dimittis in Sheppard's Media vita Stile Antico performs it with male voices only, and antiphonically, which is much more in line with the practice of the time.

Both discs have much to offer for lovers of - in particular English - polyphony and are worthwhile additions to the catalogue.

Johan van Veen ( 2011)

Relevant links:

New York Polyphony
The Sixteen

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