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The Golden Age of English Polyphony
The Sixteen/Harry Christophers
Christopher Royall, countertenor and Paul Nicholson, organ;
Fretwork
rec. 1982-1992. DDD.
Texts and translations included.
HYPERION CDS44401/10 [10 CDs: 49:41 + 79:03 + 72:54 + 54:06 + 62:46 + 58:27 + 78:06 + 79:30 + 79:21 + 71:00]
Experience Classicsonline

BARGAIN OF THE MONTH 
The Golden Age of English Polyphony
CD 1
Robert FAYRFAX (1464-1521)
Æternæ laudis lilium [11:30]
Missa Albanus [37:59]
CD 2
John TAVERNER (c.1490-1545)
Plainchant: Archangeli Michælis interventione [1:18]
Leroy Kyrie [5:17]
Missa O Michæl [37:16]
Dum transisset Sabbatum I [6:42]
Gaude plurimum [13:29]
Ex eius tumba [15:00]
CD 3
Missa Corona spinea [39:07]
In pace, in idipsum [6:04]
O splendor gloriæ [10:24]
Te Deum [13:06]
Alleluia. Veni, electa mea [4:11]
CD 4
Missa Gloria tibi Trinitas [40:47]
In nomine a 42 [2:27]
Audivi vocem de cælo [4:16]
Dum transisset Sabbatum II [6:35]
CD 5
Hodie nobis cælorum rex [4:59]
Mater Christi sanctissima [7:21]
Magnificat a 4 - Nesciens mater [11:46]
Quemadmodum a 62 [4:21]
Missa Mater Christi sanctissima [34:17]
CD 6
The Western Wynde Mass [28:22]
O Wilhelme, pastor bone [3:46]
Missa Sancti Wilhelmi devotio [26:19]
CD 7
John SHEPPARD (c1515-1558)
Missa Cantate [31:26]
Salvator mundi, Domine [4:37]
Verbum caro factum est [6:45]
Laudem dicite Deo [7:32]
Reges Tharsis et insulæ [4:45]
In manus tuas I [3:16]
Filiæ Hierusalem [6:26]
In pace, in idipsum [4:22]
Paschal Kyrie [3:51]
Jesu salvator sæculi, verbum [5:00]
CD 8
The Western Wynde Mass [19:10]
Second Service: Magnificat [5:48] and Nunc dimittis [3:07]
Te Deum [13:48]
Spiritus Sanctus procedens I [7:35]
Iusti in perpetuum vivent [6:28]
Libera nos, salva nos I [2:56]
Libera nos, salva nos II [1:49]
Audivi vocem de cælo [4:05]
Deus tuorum militum I [3:10]
Ave maris stella [5:08]
Jesu salvator sæculi, redemptis [6:19]
CD 9
Spiritus Sanctus procedens II [8:40]
Beata nobis gaudia [6:01]
In manus tuas II [4:08]
Gaude, gaude, gaude Maria [13:41]
Hæc dies quam fecit Dominus [2:04]
Impetum fecerunt unanimes [6:12]
Dum transisset Sabbatum I [6:58]
Sancte Dei pretiose [2:53]
Sacris solemniis [7:57]
Hostis Herodes impie [5:15]
Dum transisset Sabbatum II [7:26]
In manus tuas III [3:31]
Æterne rex altissime [4:31]
CD 10
William MUNDY (c.1529-1591)
O Lord, the maker of all things [2:56]
Videte miraculum [8:35]
Sive vigilem [3:27]
Ah, helpless wretch1 [5:59]
Vox Patris cælestis [17:45]
Kyrie :Orbis factor [3:57]
O Lord, the world’s Saviour [3:16]
Magnificat ‘in medio chori’ [7:44]
Nunc dimittis ‘in medio chori’ [3:36]
The secret sins1 [3:42]
Beatus et sanctus [2:22]
Adolescentulus sum ego [6:24]
The Sixteen/Harry Christophers
1 with Christopher Royall, countertenor and Paul Nicholson, organ;
2 Fretwork
rec. 1982-1992. DDD.
Texts and translations included.
HYPERION CDS44401/10 [10 CDs: 49:41 + 79:03 + 72:54 + 54:06 + 62:46 + 58:27 + 78:06 + 79:30 + 79:21 + 71:00]

Here be riches indeed; if there were a ‘bargain of bargains’ category, this would qualify - ten CDs of wonderful music, excellently sung and recorded, with scholarly notes, texts and translations, for the equivalent of around £4 per CD. All that you lose is the attractive artwork which accompanies the individual CDs.

You may safely place your order before even reading the rest of this review, while those who own some of these recordings already should take immediate steps to complete their collection: with the exception of the Fayrfax disc, available only from Hyperion’s archive service, all these recordings remain in the catalogue at budget price on the Helios label or as 2-CDs-for-1 Dyads.

The Fayrfax Missa Albanus was one of the first Hyperion LPs that I bought. Robert Fayrfax’s music comes in for a degree of criticism in some musical textbooks for its transitional status between the very florid polyphony of the preceding age and the glorious achievements of Taverner and Sheppard. Don’t believe it: this is wonderful music to start the collection, soaring polyphony to lift the spirits as much now as it must have done in the early years of the 16th century.

This 1982 recording marked the beginning of a partnership between The Sixteen and the recently founded Hyperion label which was fruitful for both. The other, equally important partnership was with Gothic Voices and Christopher Page. The Fayrfax CD is short because those early recordings were limited by conventional LP timings, though cutting techniques had already developed to the stage where some LPs were longer than the first CDs. Because Hyperion had nothing suitable to pair with it, its appearance on CD on CDA66073 was brief and it soon descended into the limbo of the special archive service, where it remains available at full price. If this is the one recording on the reissued set that you have yet to obtain, it is worth ordering, even at full price. £13.99 direct from Hyperion for a professionally produced CDR.

Alternatively, by the time that you read this review, it may well be that Hyperion’s own download service will have gone online, in which case the recording will be available in mp3 or lossless form at a bargain price. The normal price for downloads of full-price CDA recordings will be £7.99, with Helios recordings at £5.99, but shorter CDs, like this, will be reduced by £1 or even £2. I have already downloaded the Missa Albanus in flac sound and can report it to be excellent: it’s likely to be one of the 30 Hyperion downloads in an article that I’m preparing for Musicweb when their service goes online.

If the Fayrfax is superb, the next CDs, nos. 2-6, are even more essential listening. Together they contain all the recordings of John Taverner’s music which Hyperion have made, including all his masses except the Meane Mass. (For this work, see Hugh Benham, John Taverner: His Life and Music, Aldershot: Ashgate, 2003, pp.169ff.). The masses are the chief attraction, but The Sixteen do equal justice to the shorter pieces, including my own favourite, Dum transisset sabbatum I (CD2).

These recordings remain available on separate CDs on the budget Helios label, CDH55051-6, and anyone who has some but not all of them should close any gaps. The mathematically-inclined will note, however, that some neat prestidigitation has reduced a set of six CDs to five well filled discs. I’ve already said just about all that I could say about these recordings in reviewing CDH55056: The Western Wynde Mass - see review - and I’ve used them as benchmarks in several other reviews of the music of Taverner and his contemporaries.

The modest price of the box is worth paying for these life-enhancing performances alone; it costs about what you would expect to pay for the six separate Helios CDs and you obtain the Fayrfax, Sheppard and Mundy to boot. Looking very hard for something to criticise, I could note that Hyperion’s listing perpetuates the title ‘small devotion’ as a sub-title for the Missa Sancti Wilhelmi devotio (CD6), generally believed to be a copyist’s error for an abbreviation such as Sti Will devotio; resorting to nit-picking goes to show how very good these performances are.

These recordings by The Sixteen are not, of course, the only Taverner in town. There is a series of recordings of Tudor music by Christ Church Cathedral Choir, Oxford, the modern incumbents of the Cardinal College choristers whom Taverner once directed. You’ll find my reviews of Nimbus NI5360 (Taverner’s Music for Our Lady and Divine Office) here.

As always, however, it’s most instructive to compare The Sixteen’s performances with those of The Tallis Scholars on Gimell. The Tallis Scholars’ recording of Taverner’s Western Wynde Mass on CDGIM027 is an essential supplement to these recordings by The Sixteen, since it allows comparison between the two interpretations of Taverner’s and Sheppard’s settings, the latter included on CD8 of this set, and adds that by Christopher Tye. In the Taverner setting, The Tallis Scholars are significantly slower in the Gloria and the timings of the two groups come gradually closer to each other until in the Agnus Dei it’s hardly noticeable. Painful as the position is, I continue to sit on the fence on this issue, since both have their merits: The Tallis Scholars allow the listener to savour the beauty of the music a little more, without ever sounding too slow or episodic, while The Sixteen keep the music moving forward. If, like me, you want both, but don’t want to duplicate the Sheppard as well as the Taverner, go for the 2-for-1 The Tallis Scholars Sing Tudor Music I (CDGIM209, Bargain of the Month) which I recommended last year; it contains the Taverner and Tye settings of the Western Wynde Mass, together with music by Browne and Cornysh.

The Tallis Scholars and The Sixteen are in competition again in Sheppard’s Western Wynde Mass (CD8 of the Hyperion reissue). Once again, the Scholars take slightly longer to savour the music, though the difference is less marked than in Taverner: overall, the Gimell recording is just over a minute longer than the Hyperion, with the difference most marked in the Gloria and Credo and the Agnus Dei taken at almost exactly the same tempo. Once again I’m going to sit on the fence: both are excellent. The Scholars’ version comes either on CDGIM040, with the Taverner and Tye, or on another 2-for-1 set, CDGIM210, Volume 2 of the Tudor music set, which I reviewed and recommended as joint Bargain of the Month with CDGIM209 (see above).

As with the Taverner, Sheppard’s music has been skilfully subbed down, from two 2-CD sets to three discs. This part of the set is especially valuable if, like me, you never bought those two Dyad sets; I already owned one single CD from each set in its original incarnation. These performances by The Sixteen were highly instrumental in bringing Sheppard’s music our of near-total obscurity, building on the pioneering work of David Wulstan, whose 1973 recording of Sheppard and Tallis with the Clerkes of Oxenford remains available on a recommendable Classics for Pleasure budget CD (5759822).

The earlier CFP incarnation of this CD survives in my collection, not just as a reminder of the excellent work of Wulstan and his Clerkes in bringing this music to our attention. His tempi tend to be somewhat faster than those of The Sixteen, sometimes, as in Gaude, gaude, gaude Maria, much faster. It is a work of rejoicing, but I now think that Wulstan takes it a little too fast and that Harry Christophers and The Sixteen have it about right. When, last year, I reviewed a Nimbus CD of Sheppard’s music from Christ Church Cathedral Choir, I thought Wulstan’s pace preferable and I still like his performance; I am allowed to change my mind sometimes. In any event, the Christ Church recording, which almost exactly splits the timings of Wulstan and Christophers, still comes a creditable third in my estimation - see review

Sheppard died soon after Queen Elizabeth’s accession (either in 1558/9 or 1563), so he wrote little for the reformed English liturgy. His Second Service settings of the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis are contained on CD8. Coming immediately after his Western Wynde Mass, they demonstrate how awkward composers of the time initially found it to set the new liturgy, with the exception of Tallis and Byrd. Sheppard’s settings are no match for Byrd’s Great Service and Second Service, but they are worth hearing.

The mystery remains as to when he composed them. Stephen Rice’s notes in the Hyperion booklet assume that they date from the brief reign of Edward VI, but it is also possible that they were written in haste after the accession of Elizabeth I, as Roger Bowers assumes in the Nimbus booklet. My own feeling is that the wording of the doxology ‘as it was in the beginning and is now and ever shall be’ points to the likelihood that they were set for the First Prayer Book of 1549, the first ‘and’ being omitted from the 1552 and 1559 revisions. The Sixteen make the best case for this music - a fraction faster than Stephen Darlington’s tempo with the Christ Church Choir on Nimbus.

If this were all that survived of Sheppard’s music, it would be worth hearing, but the chief attraction of the 3-CDs-worth of Sheppard’s music here is provided by the Latin works, not least by the two Mass settings. Quite different as they are in style, The Sixteen respond splendidly to both and to all Sheppard’s music, even if I continue to hanker after the Gimell and CFP recordings mentioned above as a supplement.

William Mundy is the only composer here to have survived substantially into the Elizabethan era, with almost half of his music on CD10 to English texts. The chief interest of this CD, however, is Vox patris cælestis, which Hyperion have understandably decided to employ as the title for this disc. It is the most often recorded of Mundy’s works, featuring, for example, on another recent Hyperion recording, Mary and Elizabeth at Westminster Abbey (CDA67704). In my review of that recording I compare it with the three versions which The Tallis Scholars have made, as also does Michael Greenhalgh - see review. I won’t bore you by repeating those comparisons here; I shall merely point out that there are three excellent performances of that work on The Tallis Scholars’ Gimell label - it’s almost become their trademark since they first recorded it in 1980 - that the choir of Westminster Abbey also offer a very good performance on CDA67704, and that the performance by The Sixteen here is in no way inferior to any of them.

I’m reduced to nit-picking again for anything to criticise. In the new booklet, as in that which accompanied the original release of the Mundy on CDA66319, Hyperion give the title of the first work as O Lord, the maker of all things, which obscures the intended rhyme between the first and second lines:

O Lord, the maker of all thing,
We praie Thee nowe in this evening
Us to defende through Thy mercie
From all deceite of our enemie.

as in the King’s Primer of 1545. Yes, it’s a feeble rhyme, but it’s typical of the hurried and unskilful metrical translations of the time; Cranmer’s original attempt at Veni Creator Spiritus in the Ordination Service is even worse - for all the majesty of his prose translations, Veni Creator didn’t receive a decent metrical translation until 1662.

Whatever the poetic defects of the English texts, Mundy’s music is well worth hearing when the performances are as first-rate everything which The Sixteen recorded here during their time with Hyperion - and since, of course. They have gone on to equally great things since and Hyperion have recruited other excellent groups, but these ten CDs remain classics.

There are some gaps in the glorious English music of the 16th century which these ten CDs don’t fill, notably of Tallis and Byrd. Some of the gaps can be plugged from within Hyperion’s own catalogue: a good start would be with Christopher Tye’s Missa Euge bone and other works (CDH55079, Winchester Cathedral Choir/David Hill), of which there is also a good version by the Oxford Camerata and Jeremy Summerly on Naxos 8.550397, though that involves duplication of some of Mundy’s music on CD10.

The recordings, though originating from various dates a decade apart and made in different locations are all excellent and do full justice to the first-rate performances. Apart from the lack of artwork - the CDs are in mini slipcases inside a hinged box, like the Hyperion set of Purcell’s Church Music - and the replacement of the original, detailed notes with a shorter but still informative essay by Stephen Rice, there is nothing here inferior to the individual issues.

I repeat my initial exhortation to order the set without delay or, if you have some of the originals, to complete the set. Just don’t forget to supplement it with some of the other excellent recordings of the music of this period which I have mentioned, not least those of The Tallis Scholars.

Brian Wilson 
 
 


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