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John TAVERNER (c.1490-1545)
Ave Dei Patris Filia: Music for Our Lady and Divine Office

Ex eius tumba: Sospitati dedit ægros (1514?) [13:16]
Dum transisset sabbatum (I) [7:21]
Audivi vocem de cælo [4:13]
Dum transisset sabbatum (II) [3:45]
Kyrie le Roy [5:19]
Alleluya V. Veni electa mea [3:38]
Magnificat a5 [12:05]
Ave Dei Patris filia [13:55]
Christ Church Cathedral Choir, Oxford/Stephen Darlington
rec. Dorchester Abbey, Oxon., England, 11-12 May 1992. DDD.
Booklet with notes in English, French and German.
NIMBUS NI5360 [63:32]

Experience Classicsonline


The recent very welcome resurgence of the Lyrita label coincides with an equally welcome revival in the fortunes of Nimbus, both now distributed from Wyastone Leys. Having done my small share in Musicweb’s charting the progress of Lyrita’s rebirth, I was delighted to be offered for review a set of Nimbus recordings, featuring the Christ Church Choir and the Martin Best Ensemble.

I must declare a small interest in the Christ Church recordings: as an undergraduate, almost half a century ago, most Sundays found me in attendance at Sung Eucharist or Choral Evensong, or both, at the House, as it is commonly known from its Latin name, Ædes Christi. Whenever I have cause to be back in Oxford, I always dust off my MA gown, to ensure a good seat. As I sit back and listen to these recordings I can imagine that the years have rolled back.

It is not some fanciful enchantment, however, that leads me to recommend this recording of several pieces by John Taverner. As informator choristarum, or master of the choristers, at the recently founded Cardinal College – renamed Christ Church after the fall of its patron, Cardinal Wolsey – from its official opening in 1526 for about four years, he was director of a choir of exactly the same proportions as those of the present-day cathedral. Far be it from me to dissuade you from the likes of The Tallis Singers and The Sixteen but, whatever the merits of rival recordings, Christ Church choir can claim a special affinity with this composer.

It used to be thought that all of Taverner’s music must have been composed before 1528 when, along with several others at Cardinal College, he was charged with being infected with Lutheranism. Several of those accused were imprisoned in a cellar full of putrid fish, some of them actually dying because of the "noisome smell". Taverner got off lightly because he was a ‘mere’ musician – "unlearned and not to be regarded" was the official verdict. The belief that he forswore the writing of "Popish ditties" thereafter and even became a government agent in the dissolution of the monasteries is, as Grove reminds us, at best unproven; there is no evidence that he ceased composing when he left Oxford to become a lay clerk at St Botolph, Lincoln.

The programme on this recording is an excellent combination of the better – at least, better-known – and other works.

Stephen Darlington and the Christ Church Choir recently returned to Dum transisset sabbatum (I) (When the Sabbath had passed), as one of the fillers to their Avie recording of Taverner’s Missa Gloria Tibi Trinitas (AV2123). On the new recording they are, as Gary Higginson notes in his recent review, noticeably faster than on their earlier recordings. He makes the point in respect of the Mater Christi motet (NI5216, with the Missa Mater Christi, no longer available) but it is also relevant to Dum transisset – 6:54 on the newer version, against 7:21 here. GH thought Mater Christi not only faster but more interesting than before. I haven’t heard the Avie recording, but I cannot imagine that anyone would find the rendition of Dum transisset on the Nimbus version sluggish. Leisurely, yes, but that allows us to savour some fine singing of fine music.

This first setting of the Easter respond is Taverner’s best-known piece – certainly the most often recorded – and it is easy to see why. The way in which the voices toss the word aromata, the spices which the women were bringing to embalm the body of Jesus, from one to the other is especially delightful, particularly when it is sung as well as it is here. The Tallis Scholars are more in line with Darlington’s Nimbus performance at 7:10 (Gimell CDGIM004, coupled with the Missa Gloria Tibi Trinitas, etc.) The Sixteen at 6:43 are fastest of all (Hyperion Helios CDH55054, coupled with Missa O Michael, etc.) All of these performances are excellent in their own terms – a reminder that timings tell only part of the story.

If the first setting of Dum transisset is the best-known piece on this CD, Kyrie Le Roy is not far behind. Once again, Darlington’s Nimbus performance of this music for Ladymass looks slow at 5:19 against the Tallis Scholars’ 3:45 (CDGIM004 again). The Sixteen, at 5:14 (CDH55054, as above) are close to the Christ Church tempo. Again, Christ Church are leisurely rather than slow. I was about to write that the Tallis Scholars really are too fast for a piece with penitential words until I listened again to their recording and found their singing as measured as I could wish – and slightly more intense than the Christ Church version. Yet another case where the internal logic of a performance is more important than tempo.

In the five-part Magnificat, Darlington’s time of 12:05 is very similar to that of The Chapel Musick, directed by Philip Cave (Authenticka [sic] AS004) This recording, formerly distributed by Tring, is deleted but worth looking out for, as it offers the only recording of the Meane Mass or Missa Sine Nomine.

At 4:13, Darlington’s tempo for the beautiful Audivi vocem (I heard a voice from heaven) almost exactly matches that of The Sixteen (Hyperion Helios CDH55052, with Missa Gloria Tibi Trinitas.) This, the eighth lesson for Mattins on All Saints Day, would be sung alternately by five choirboys facing the altar on the choir steps and the rest of the choir. The engineers achieve the effect by making the boys sound more distant – a little disconcerting, perhaps, but effective in making the boys sound as other-worldly as the Wise Virgins, now members of the communion of saints, whom they represent.

You may have noticed that purchasers of the Hyperion Helios series of Taverner Masses will have collected several of the works on this Nimbus CD as fillers. That series, at budget price, is one of the outstanding bargains of the catalogue: I recently took the opportunity of correcting the wrong cover-shot on the Musicweb review of the Western Wynde Mass in this series (CDH55056) to make that CD my Bargain of the Month and to remind readers of the virtues of the whole series. As well as the recording mentioned, the series contains: Missa Corona Spinea (CDH55051); Missa Mater Christi sanctissima (CDH55053) and Missa Sancti Wilhelmi (CDH55055).

Does that make the current Nimbus CD redundant? Emphatically not. The Nimbus versions are competitive with the Hyperion and several substantial works, including the title piece on this CD, are not included on any of the recordings listed above.

Ex eius tumba (From his tomb distils a holy essence) is probably an early work, perhaps composed as early as 1514 for the London musical Fraternity of St Nicholas, a respond for Mattins of that saint's day, with an interpolated prose Sospitati dedit ægros (The anointing of his oil gave health to the sick.) The miracles recounted here, much fleshed out in the prose addition, represent just the kind of late-medieval 'popery' that Taverner is supposed to have recanted later; he lavishes a wealth of elaborate polyphony on it of a kind different from his later works. The Sixteen take this piece at a slightly more leisurely pace on CDH55055.

Ex eius tumba begins with plainsong, a wonderfully quiet and serene opening to this recording, from which the polyphony miraculously arises. Thereafter, as with several of the pieces on this CD, chant and polyphony alternate very effectively - seamlessly interwoven, especially in Dum transisset (I).

Alleluya. Veni mea electa (Come my beloved and I shall place you on my throne), a Marian antiphon from the Office of Our Lady, is another work unlikely to have been composed after (and if) Taverner subscribed to reformist views. Like Kyrie le Roy, it probably formed part of the daily devotions in the Lady Chapel at Cardinal College. The Sixteen are again slightly more leisurely on CDH55056.

Of the pieces not recorded by The Sixteen, in the Magnificat alternate verses are sung in chant and polyphony, a common practice.

Ave Dei Patris filia nobilissima (Hail most worthy daughter of God the Father) is another Marian text, one of the most popular in early 16th-Century England. Taverner’s setting employs part of the plainsong Te Deum, sung at Mattins, as cantus firmus in the second tenor, an unusual practice in England after about 1500, making this again probably an early work. The notes in the booklet demonstrate hidden references to the number 3 and its multiples, cryptic references to the Trinity – the first half of the work contains 333 semibreves – but the music can be enjoyed without reference to any such mathematical considerations.

The second version of Dum transisset, recorded here without plainsong as a short Easter motet, is a less elaborate setting in the plainer manner more favoured after Henry VIII’s break with Rome, but still very attractive.

The boys’ voices lose out against adult singers in terms of virtuosity and experience, with an occasionally flat high note, but they gain in terms of vocal purity – a cliché, but certainly true of this recording. One reviewer in 1993 noted a fluffed entry at implevit in the Magnificat, but one really has to listen hard to spot it. After an elaborately drawn-out esurientes, missing the opening of the next word is hardly a cardinal sin. There is never any sense that they are over-parted by the music and the same is even more true of the men’s voices – hardly surprising when they include singers of the calibre of Andrew Carwood, himself now the director of the Cardinalls Musick. The boys’ and men’s voices blend at climaxes in an assured manner born of their performing together regularly. Occasionally clarity of diction takes second seat to tonal beauty, but that is a common problem with rich polyphony.

In saying that I can imagine myself listening to these works in Christ Church itself, with a nice distance, but not too great a distance, between listener and choir, I have already implied that the recording is very good. In fact, Nimbus recorded this music in the friendlier acoustic of Dorchester Abbey. Listening from the ‘privileged’ pews at the House, between the choir and the altar, gives one a strange reverse perspective on the singing; this recording restores the normal perspective.

I don’t know if the engineers realised it, but they were recording in the place which had been the Episcopal seat in Anglo-Saxon times. Before Christ Church became one of the new foundation sees, Oxford had been in the diocese of Lincoln but, in the time of King Alfred, the see was transferred to Dorchester-on-Thames because the Danes had overrun Lincoln, and the bishop temporarily became bisceop æt Dorceceastre. (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, 897, MS A)

The booklet is excellent, with informative notes by David Skinner. One minor correction: it can hardly be the case that "In 1548 Henry refound [sic] the college ..." when he died in 1547! The error is repeated in the French and German versions.

The Nimbus and Avie recordings both feature the same depiction of St Frideswide, the patron saint of Oxford – not identified by Nimbus, but the ox and the capital F are a give-away – from Wolsey’s Epistle Book, on their covers.

Until recently this recording was available as part of a budget-price set of English music from the 16th and 17th Centuries. Though it is deleted in that form, some dealers still seem to have stocks. I shall be reviewing the remainder of the recordings in their individual guise coming weeks but you may take it that the set as a whole is worth acquiring if you can find it – but hurry.

Brian Wilson





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