John Taverner is a rather shadowy figure. He hailed from
Boston in Lincolnshire. Not a great deal seems to be known of
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
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
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
admired the extrovert response of the choir to the first setting;
in this second version they sustain the long flowing lines very
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
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
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
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
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.