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York Early Music Festival 2009 – Taverner and others:
The Tallis Scholars, York Minster, 10.7.2009 (JL)

TAVERNER: Leroy Kyrie
TAVERNER: Missa Corona spinea (Gloria)
WHITE: Manus tuae fecurent me
WHITE: Regina caeli
TAVERNER: Missa Corona spinea (Credo)


TAVERNER: Missa Corona spinea (Sanctus)
CORNYSH: Ave Maria
WHITE: Exaudiat te
TAVERNER: Missa Corona spinea (Agnus)

*These are the winning entries of the National Centre for Early Music Composers Award 2009.

The opening event of the York Early Music Festival in the spacious setting of York Minster started with a Kyrie by John Taverner (c.1490-1545) sung by the handful of Tallis Scholars. What might have been for me an issue of acoustics was immediately resolved: the sound was as good as it could be in what can be the difficult context of a large, reverberant, medieval interior – and this is one of the largest Gothic churches in the world. The balance between clarity and ethereal blend was there. Taverner's astonishing polyphonic lines were clear yet the dispersal of the combined sound easily filled the vaulted building with its sizeable transepts, side aisles and choir that all extend from the central nave in which the concert took place.

The centre-piece of this major event was Taverner's splendid festive Missa Corona spinea written during the reign of Henry VIII, the main sections of which were, rightly or wrongly, sandwiched between works by later contemporary Robert White (c.1538-1574) and one by William Cornysh (d.1523). After the interval two short works were performed by winners of a competition for young composers, a joint venture of the NCEM, The Tallis Scholars, and the world's greatest classical music patron, the BBC.

Taverner's mass, unlike his best-known work, the four part Gloria tibi trinitas, is in a sumptuous six parts, the Tallis Scholars singing two to a part. According to contemporary practice, the music is woven around a "cantus firmus", in this case a melodic line of 33 notes (the age of Christ at his death?) usually sung in long notes by the tenors. Each substantial section of the mass ebbs and flows in terms of pitch - the lower voices may dominate for a while, then the higher voices gradually enter to raise the sound until the sopranos begin to soar heavenwards in a way that must have tingled many a spine in the audience. Then down it goes until we come to another swelling. The latin words of the text are generally incomprehensible to the ear since Taverner consistently writes long melodic phrases of many notes to one syllable. As the end of a major section comes in sight, the composer ratchets up the rhythmic interest in the slower moving lower voices while the higher voices swell with even greater elaboration.

Peter Phillips, the distinguished founder of the Tallis Scholars who has directed them as long as anyone can remember, paced the music with unerring perfection. In fact perfection is a word that well describes the whole concert. The singers generated a purity of sound almost vibrato-free, letting the spacious acoustic do the work.

The programme note advanced the theory that the style of the music mirrored the Gothic architecture of the buildings in which it was performed. The lower voices represent the solid pillars that support the intricate fan vaulting of the roofing, which in turn is described by the sopranos as they draw their complex patterns in sound.

I’ve always found this fanciful but as I sat in the middle of the nave hearing this music, I had in my sights three patterns of vaulting - that of the aisles, the nave above, and beyond the screen, the more complex roofing of the choir, the latter being the most recently built within a century of Taverner’s time.

We know little of Taverner’s life; in fact even less than was thought forty odd years ago when Peter Maxwell Davies wrote his eponymous opera on the subject. We do know that Taverner worked for a while at the newly built church of Cardinal College (Wolsey being the founder of what is now Christ Church, Oxford). Although much smaller than York Minster, the fan vaulting is considerably more complex and the Corona mass was almost certainly written there. Did the architecture as well as the acoustic inform the musical style? As I listened to the music and looked upwards I believe I was convinced.

The young composers of the two short pieces performed after the interval knew that if they got this far in the competition the Minster would be the setting of the first major public performance. 21 year old Michael Perrett (winner of the 18–25 category) wrote an adventurous piece that employed some vocal effects that (so I gather) the Tallis Scholars had to work hard to master. 16 year old Elizabeth Edwards (under 18 category) wrote a piece more harmonically conventional, even with shades of renaissance origins, that was probably more accessible to the audience. Yet it sounded tailor-made for the building and I thought it well constructed with a swelling climax in the middle. I spoke to her afterwards and asked her if, on hearing her music in this enormous building, did it sound as she imagined. She said it did although the first seeds of the piece were tried out on a keyboard at home.

These two young composers had the privilege of being in the company of a great renaissance composer and I wish them well for the future. Their works will be relayed in a recording of this concert on BBC Radio 3 on 25 July 2009. The Taverner Mass is being broadcast on 18 July 2009.

This was also a triumph for The Tallis Scholars, a group so distinguished that it was chosen to perform the first music in the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel after the completion of the formidable restoration of Michelangelo’s famous ceiling. Long may they continue under Peter Phillips’ reign.

John Leeman

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