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  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

The Thistle and the Rose – Music from the Carver Choirbook
ANON: Missa Deus Creator Omnium for four voices; Mass for three voices; Magnificat for four voices
Capella Nova/Alan Tavener
Rec. St. Mary’s Parish Church, Haddington, East Lothian, 7-9 Jan; 3 Apr 2003
GAUDEAMUS CD GAU 342 [65.13]



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On 8th August 1503, Margaret Tudor (sister of Henry VIII) married James IV of Scotland in the Abbey church at Holyroodhouse, Edinburgh. This occasioned the poem by William Dunbar, ‘The Thrissil and the Rois’ which gives this disc its title. Issued to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the marriage, the disc consists of three pieces from the most important Scottish music manuscript of the period – the Carver Choirbook.

Scholars associate this manuscript with the expansion of the Scottish Chapel Royal by James IV in 1501. The three anonymous pieces on this disc, come from a portion of the manuscript, regarded as being the oldest continuous layer in the surviving manuscript, which also includes the Mass Rex virginum and Dufay’s Mass L’homme arme.

Missa Deus Creator omniumis is a large scale 15th century mass, unusual in that the setting of the Kyrie is polyphonic and includes extensive troped passages. Tropes, textual additions to the Kyrie which varied according to season, were removed from the mass by the Council of Trent in the 16th century. The mass is cyclical, based on the same cantus firmus. This cantus firmus is, as yet, unidentified but the mass appears to be constructed on a pre-existing part from another mass. The construction of the mass has many elements in common with the works of Walter Frye - an English composer whose works are known principally through continental manuscripts.

The mass alternates concerted polyphonic passages with long sections of solos, mainly duos. The result creates a rather attractive sense of dialogue between soloists and ensemble. The ensemble, Capella Nova, is a professional a capella ensemble from Scotland. On this disc they are twelve in number (three per part for this mass and the Magnificat) with a mixture of sexes on the alto line (two men, one woman). The solos are sung by a selection of soloists taken from the choir. The resulting ensemble sound is firm and vibrant, though I did feel that they rather underplayed their diction. The use of soloists from the choir is admirable, and all have a fine sense of style, though sometimes I felt that the voices lacked a little in focus. The recording itself, brings the singers rather closer than I would like and a greater sense of the church’s acoustic would also have been preferable.

The anonymous Mass for three voice occurs in the choirbook sandwiched between two of Robert Carver’s works (the Mass Fera pessima and the great motet O bone Jesu). Much of the vocal writing in the mass adopts the florid style in the manner of the later composers in the Eton Choirbook. The mass sets a shortened text for the Gloria and Credo, something common in English masses for three voices from the early 16th century. The mass has some commonality with the three voice sections in Carver’s works. Kenneth Elliot, in his note in the CD booklet, suggests that this mass might be by Carver. Another remarkable feature is the wide vocal range in the three parts (an Octave and a fifth or an Octave and a sixth). The mass is sung by Libby Crabtree, Rebecca Tavener (sopranos) and Anne Lewis (alto) and sounds ravishing. Unlike the larger-scale mass, this does not use contrasting sections varying solo and ensemble. Instead we have a sequence of continuous melodic polyphony, at times quite florid.

The Carver Choirbook contains a group of Magnificat settings which are copies of settings in the Eton Choirbook. The Magnificat recorded here is in the same group, but does not appear in the Eton Choirbook. Given that the Eton manuscript has lost so many of its Magnificat settings (only four out of the original 24 survive), there is good reason to think that this one was also originally in the Eton Choirbook. This Magnificat uses the English technique of alternating plainchant and polyphony; also full complement episodes are alternated with solo sections for two or three voices.

These works are fascinating for the influence that they may have had on Robert Carver. He copied out many of the works himself, giving rise to much speculation about influences on his later works.

The performances by Capella Nova might not reach the icy perfection that some performers bring to this repertoire, but they give us a vivid performance full of character and vigour with moments of great beauty.

Robert Hugill

 



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