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

Any new recording of the Missa Corona Spinea faces the very considerable competition of the Hyperion recording with The Sixteen and Harry Christophers, available on a single CD on the budget Helios label (CDH55051 – see review) or in the recent box of renaissance masterpieces, The Golden Age of English Polyphony (CDS4401/10 – see my review and review by Ralph Moore). The Sixteen’s recording of Dum transisset Sabbatum I and the Leroy Kyrie also feature in the Golden Age box and on CDH55054, with the Missa O Michael, and there are equally distinguished accounts of both these works with Taverner’s Western Wynde Mass and Missa Gloria Tibi Trinitas from The Tallis Scholars on Gimell CDGIM004. I also happen to know that The Tallis Scholars have a recording session for the Missa Corona Spinea due later in 2010. O splendor glorie, which the Delphian notes point out may have been co-authored with Christopher Tye, is also on the Hyperion Golden Age box set and on a third Helios disc, CDH55056, with The Western Wynde Mass.

If you prefer Taverner’s music sung by a cathedral choir, Nimbus have a recording of several of these works performed by the descendants of the choristers for whom he probably composed the music when he was their informator at Cardinal College Oxford – now Christ Church. They sing the two settings of Dum transisset Sabbatum and Kyrie le Roy (so spelled on that CD) on NI5360 – see my review. More recently, they have re-recorded Dum transisset I for Avie, with the Missa Gloria tibi Trinitas (AV2123 – see Gary Higginson’s review).

Against such formidable competition, one might expect the Delphian recording to be little better than an also-ran. I couldn’t resist listening to it out of the order in which I had received my review discs to see if I could prove myself wrong. In the event, I was much more than pleasantly surprised, particularly by Duncan Ferguson’s chosen tempi. The Sixteen are no slouches, but Ferguson’s choir beats them to the post in every section of the Mass, and in Dum transisset I and Leroy Kyrie. Less surprisingly, in Dum transisset and the Kyrie, they are also faster than the tempo which Peter Phillips sets for the Tallis Scholars.

I had got as far as an initial run-through and been very impressed with what I had heard when I discovered that my colleague John Quinn had got in ahead of me and made this CD Recording of the Month, a decision about which I have absolutely no reservations. He has given a good deal of background information in his review.

The first, more elaborate setting of the Easter Day Matins respond Dum transisset is Taverner’s most often performed work; I have associated it with the Missa Corona spinea ever since the two were coupled long ago on a Saga LP (STXID5369). The St Mary’s Choir make as good a fist of it as any that I have ever heard. Even more importantly, they sing the less elaborate, less well known, second setting equally well and give us a wonderful opportunity to compare the two.

It was not unusual for sixteenth-century composers to set just the opening Kyrie section of the Mass and to omit that section in complete festal settings, so it makes a useful sequence to precede the Kyrie-less Missa Corona spinea with the Leroy Kyrie. The Sixteen follow a similar practice on their recording of the Missa O Michael (CD2 of CDS44401/10 or CDH55054) and the Tallis Scholars use it to precede the Missa Gloria tibi Trinitas. Two different modern editions of the Leroy Kyrie exist: one offers Kyrie eleison – Christe eleison – Kyrie eleison once each, in four parts throughout, as sung by the Tallis Scholars. The more elaborate version achieves the traditional nine-fold prayer by alternating with the four-part setting short sections in which the tenor alone sings the so-called ‘sqware note’ Leroy Kyrie for Lady Mass on Sundays which is then employed as the cantus firmus of Taverner’s polyphonic setting. This is the version sung by The Sixteen and Christ Church, and by St Mary’s Choir on the new CD, and it seems to me the best way to perform the work.

I never want to be without The Sixteen’s more measured performance – only eight seconds longer, but with much less punch than the new version – or the Tallis Scholars’ even more measured approach, but I was won over by the sheer excitement of Duncan Ferguson’s interpretation. Incidentally, when I accused the Christ Church choristers on Nimbus of being slower than The Tallis Scholars, I was nodding, like Palinurus, at the helm, having forgotten that the Scholars sing only the shorter version of this work.

What about those fast tempi; don’t they mean that Ferguson’s performers almost come off the rails? In fact, no: they cope admirably, with no problems of intonation or phrasing, even in the more florid sections of the Corona spinea Mass. They actually succeed in making the Tallis Scholars, The Sixteen and their more direct rivals at Christ Church Cathedral sound a little anaemic by comparison in the Mass and in the shorter pieces – not that I should ever wish to be without any of their performances, but I have a feeling that the new Delphian CD may well become my first choice for listening to Taverner. With good recording and very helpful notes, I’m sorry only that John Quinn has beaten me to the mark in making this Recording of the Month.

Brian Wilson