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John TAVERNER (c.1490-1545)
Sacred Choral Music
Dum transisset Sabbatum I [6:01]
Leroy Kyrie [5:09]
Missa Corona spinea [33:26]
Dum transisset Sabbatum II [3:11]
O splendour glorie [10:19]
The Choir of St Mary’s Cathedral, Edinburgh/Duncan Ferguson
rec. 14-17 September 2009, St Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral, Edinburgh. DDD
Latin texts and English translations included
DELPHIAN DCD34023 [58:10]

Experience Classicsonline

John Taverner is a rather shadowy figure. He hailed from Boston in Lincolnshire. Not a great deal seems to be known of his early life but by the early 1520s he was a lay clerk at Holy Trinity Church, Tattershall. He was plucked from the relative obscurity of rural Lincolnshire in 1526 to become the director of the choir at the new Oxford college, Cardinal College (now Christ Church College), which had just been founded by Thomas, Cardinal Wolsey. On the face of it, it seems surprising that a provincial musician from a Lincolnshire parish church should have been singled out for such a post. However, Wolsey had been Bishop of Lincoln between 1514 and 1523 so Taverner may have come to his attention then. Perhaps the patronage of Wolsey was a double-edged sword, however, for the Cardinal fell out of favour with Henry VIII in 1529 and in the following year Taverner left his post at Oxford, returning to his native Boston, where he became a member of the choir at the parish church of St Botolph, remaining in his home town until his death.

In his extremely useful booklet note Duncan Ferguson speculates that the bulk of Taverner’s music was composed during his Oxford years and that’s probably true since his often complex, flamboyant music might well have been beyond the capabilities of a parish church choir. Furthermore, the grandeur and intricacy of much of the music suggests that it was written with impressive surroundings and, perhaps, great liturgical occasions in mind. That said, if my speculation is right about his name coming to the attention of Wolsey - or his successor as Bishop of Lincoln - then Taverner must have had some noteworthy achievements to his credit, either as a composer or as a choir director, prior to his Oxford appointment.

As Duncan Ferguson observes, Taverner is regarded as “the composer who brought the English florid style to its culmination and final flowering.” His mastery is laid out for all to hear on this CD and right from the start. After the plainsong intonation, the Edinburgh choir, the trebles especially, launch into the opening piece, Dum transisset Sabbatum I, with vigour and a sense of commitment that’s almost tangible. This is a flamboyant, jubilant piece and this fervent performance really brings it to life. Later in the recital we hear Taverner’s second setting of the same text, which is a Matins Respond for Easter Day. The two pieces are sharply contrasted. The second one is much less discursive and strikes a more reflective, prayerful tone. Unlike the first setting, this is through-composed, with no plainchant interpolations other than the incipit. I admired the extrovert response of the choir to the first setting; in this second version they sustain the long flowing lines very well.

The centre-piece of the recital is the Missa Corona spinea. At that time settings of the Kyrie were not normally included in English festal Masses so it’s a good decision to precede the Mass with Taverner’s ‘Leroy’ Kyrie, a standalone composition. The Mass itself is for six voices, including two bass parts. As Duncan Ferguson observes, the Mass, which is probably an Oxford composition, “is a real tour de force for the choir, not least the upper voices - the treble line is particularly taxing.” One can only admire the skill and stamina of the Edinburgh choir in essaying this complex music so convincingly. In particular, I’m full of admiration for the treble section - which comprises four boys and six girls. Quite apart from the excellent vocal technique that’s required to sing this music it’s also hugely demanding on their concentration. For young singers to be able to deliver this complex music so successfully and with such assurance is a significant achievement. Their colleagues in the choir - four altos (two male, two female); four tenors; and three each of baritones and basses - match this excellence. When the full choir is in action the effect is often thrilling and the frequent sections for combinations of solo voices are all brought off very well indeed.

I think the whole Mass is wonderfully done. Among passages that stood out in particular, the burst of energy at ‘Cum sancto Spiritu’ in the Gloria is palpable, ushering in a really exciting conclusion to that movement. The Credo includes some particularly relentless high-lying passages for the trebles, all of which are negotiated fearlessly. I admired the work of the solo team at ‘Et incarnatus est’, after which the full choir at ‘Et resurrexit’ sounds magnificently affirmative and joyful. The Sanctus includes a long, undulating line for the trebles on the word ‘sanctus’ and the young singers acquit themselves very well in this taxing stretch of music. The choir’s delivery of the ecstatic ‘Hosanna’ in this movement is also much to be admired. I’ve just picked out a few highlights in what seems to me to be a very fine performance overall of this magnificent Mass setting. 

The other piece on the disc is O splendour glorie, an extensive Trinity anthem. Interestingly, there is now a body of opinion that holds that the piece was composed jointly by Taverner and Christopher Tye. It’s a five-part setting which, like the Mass, includes stretches for groups of solo voices. These sections are well done and the work of the full choir is once again impressive.

In recent years much of this music has been essayed on disc by mixed adult choirs of professional singers such as The Tallis Scholars and The Sixteen. This Delphian disc offers a very different listening experience. The singing of those hand-picked professional choirs is, perhaps, more polished - though in saying that I don’t mean to imply that the Edinburgh choir lacks polish, for it doesn’t. However, much though I admire the work of The Sixteen et al this Edinburgh recital is different in that the singing seems more highly charged, less inhibited, even. I wouldn’t express a preference for one approach over the other. Both have something to teach us about this music. Some listeners may object that the Edinburgh style it is too vivid and that a slightly cooler sound would be more appropriate. That’s a matter of personal taste but, for myself, I’ve found these Edinburgh performances hugely convincing.

Duncan Ferguson has been in charge of the Edinburgh choir since 2007. Though he was only twenty-six when he took up his post it seems clear from this disc that he’s a fine and inspiring choral trainer. He certainly gets a vivid response from his choir. They have been recorded superbly by Paul Baxter of Delphian, who has not only captured the sound of the choir very realistically but has also used the resonant acoustic of Edinburgh Cathedral to excellent advantage.

This is glorious music, as complex, affirmative and rewarding to the ear as can be a fan vaulted ceiling to the eye. The performances are as splendid as the music. This is an outstanding disc.

John Quinn 

 


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