Hillier, ex-Hilliard Ensemble and ex-Theatre of Voices,
is now in Denmark as director of Ars Nova Copenhagen.
He has already moulded these sixteen adult singers into
a fine choir, with a very English - even Oxbridge - feel.
Is that a bad thing? I suspect not, as the sound now has
international credentials and surely in this particular
English repertoire is just right. This disc marks volume
one of a pair, looking especially at two contrasting masses
by John Taverner. There’s this early more intimate example
and the long and spacious ‘Gloria tibi trinitas’. On each
disc the mass is nicely divided up by contemporary part-songs,
as they are called in the booklet, but I think that we might
all agree that this is not an adequate nomenclature. These
songs are from the Fayrfax manuscript.
may already know a version of the Western Wind Mass from
a disc by the Sixteen recorded in 1991. That version weighs
in at over three minutes slower, and I must say immediately
that a faster tempo works perfectly well. There is also
a fine version by King’s College under Philip Ledger on
first, when I heard the Ars Nova Choir I was struck by the
acoustic of St.Paul’s Copenhagen; there was simply too much of
it. The effect can spoil the diction and deprive us of the
bass line. This is true here to a certain extent. But once
I put headphones on I found that in large part the problems
went away. When I heard the Mass on The Sixteen’s Hyperion
recording in an unnamed church I found that the diction
was most certainly less distinct, which is strange when
the tempo is steadier. The King’s College recording is more
closely microphoned, and has the advantage, if you regard
it as such, of having trebles on the top line and then male
altos. This is what the composer expected when he wrote
the piece, probably when he worked at the Collegiate church
at Tattershall in Lincolnshire. This magnificent church and late medieval house still survive and
are worth seeing.
Masses never have a polyphonic Kyrie eleison before the
Gloria. Ars Nova get around this with a fine performance
of the beautiful Kyrie Leroy, again probably an early work,
in four parts. With this I started to warm to the recording
and then more to the choir. This was especially so when
we came to Cornysh’s ’Woefully arrayed’.
there has been much debate about this composer. Most scholars
seem to agree that there were two with the same name, probably
father and son. Stevens ascribes this piece to Cornysh Junior
but the piece is dated in the printed edition by Chesters
as c.1500. Paul Hillier in his notes also seems to have
them confused. Anyway this is a striking piece which, like
Sherynham’s equally often recorded ‘Ah, gentle Jesu’, is
a colloquy: the sinner often sung by the upper voices, God
by the lower ones. There was a very fine performance of
this piece on the old Saga label which appeared on CD briefly
c.1994 by the Hilliard Ensemble, with Paul Hillier singing
baritone. That had one voice to a part, but here it’s with
full choir and it works beautifully.
Sheryngham song composed c.1500 has a somewhat long text.
John Stevens in his ‘bible’ on the ‘Music and Poetry in
the Early Tudor Court (Cambridge, 1961)
states that it is probably by John Lydgate (c.1370-c.1450).
It runs to six verses. Da Capo make the odd decision to
print only four of the verses but the choir sing just two,
the refrain returning after each. The disc has space for
at least one more verse of this very moving piece. The Sixteen
on their disc The Crown of Thorns now transferred
to their own Coro label perform all six but allow the tempo to move on more fluidly.
Mercy’ by the great John Browne is a four-part carol of
simplicity and elegance. This also appears on the Sixteen’s
Coro disc mentioned above. Both performances are spot-on although Ars Nova,
as I have implied, have a more recessed ‘churchy’ sound
which may be out of keeping with what is probably a chamber
work as opposed to a church piece.
text of the anonymous ‘Ah my deir son’ also includes the
well known lines ‘On enders night/ I saw a sight’. It is
a Christmas Eve partsong - a Carol with strophic verses:
a colloquy this time between the Virgin Mary and her newly-born
son. From time to time this little song gets hopelessly
lost in the vast spaces of Ars Nova’s recording venue and
the words are often indistinct. The Sixteen recorded it
and it is on ‘The Flower of all Virginity’ again on their
Coro label. Although recorded at Orford Church in Suffolk the recording manages again to achieve
an intimate chamber atmosphere that is surely more suitable.
Also with all of The Sixteen’s performances of songs in
English you have the bonus, if you regard it as such, of
Tudor pronunciation. I think it works.
Tye is from a generation later than Browne and Taverner.
He writes, especially in his early Latin works in the more
florid early Tudor style. His ‘In pace’ makes a suitable
ending to this disc, excellent I think for late night listening.
It has recently been released on Harmonia Mundi in a rather
sleepy version by the choir of Magdalene College Oxford,
which offers the contrast of being all-male.
to sum up. If you are fairly new to this repertoire then
this disc could well be for you. It is after all a very
beautiful performance of the Mass. The problem is for those of us who are a little long in the tooth
and have quite a few recordings of this music. There is
nothing here which would immediately make me think that
this is the recording to have. Although the singing
is very fine there are too many things about it that I find
presentation is excellent in a cardboard slip-case. The
booklet has all the texts, a useful essay by Paul Hillier
and a note on the late Welsh artist David Jones whose rune-like
inscriptive design is offered as a unique cover.
by Kevin Sutton
RECORDING OF THE MONTH