Orlando di LASSUS (1532-1594) Missa Venatorum (1577) [12:29]
Thomas TALLIS (c.1505-1585) O sacrum convivium (1575) [3:51]
Hieronymus PRAETORIUS (1560-1629) Magnificat quinti toni [6:58]
John SHEPPARD (c.1515-1558) Reges Tharsis et insulæ [5:52]
Cristóbal de MORALES (c.1500-1553) Magnificat primi toni [8:23]
Peter PHILIPS (c.1560-1628) Ecce vicit Leo (1613) [3:50]
Orlando di LASSUS Magnificat septimi toni (1576) [8:11]
Thomas TALLIS Nunc dimittis à 5 [3:42]
Loquebantur variis linguis [4:25]
Cheltenham College Chamber Choir/Alexander Ffitch
rec. Cheltenham College Chapel, 25-28 May 2009. DDD.
Texts and translations included
HERALD HAVPCD351 [57:48]
Although it’s employed as the overall title of the CD, you won’t find a piece of music here actually entitled Coeperunt loqui - they began to speak - but the words form part of the final work, the Tallis Pentecost Vespers respond, Loquebantur variis linguis - [the apostles] spoke in many different tongues. I don’t suppose that many would concern themselves with such pedantic matters nowadays, even at Cheltenham College, but both coeperunt and loqui are oddities among Latin verbs: coepio (I begin) is seldom found in the present tense, more often in the perfect, and loquor (I speak) is passive in form but active in meaning.
Having got that piece of pedantry out of the way, I should immediately say that I was very impressed by this recording; it stands up to the competition from professional groups much better than I had expected. In that respect, it belongs in the same category as the St Mary’s Cathedral, Edinburgh recording of Taverner’s Missa Corona spinea which impressed both John Quinn and myself so much recently (Delphian DCD34023 - see review and review).
That Delphian recording was in direct competition with a superb recording of the Taverner Mass from The Sixteen on Hyperion. Perhaps wisely, the Cheltenham Choir begin with a somewhat neglected work, Lassus’s shortest Mass, known as Missa Venatorum or Jaeger, both titles signifying that it is a Hunters’ Mass, since it was intended for performance on days when the court wished to be off hunting. There seem to be only two other currently available recordings of this work, one on the Regent label (REGCD297) where it forms part of a concert of Lassus’s music sung by York Minster Choir. I reviewed a 1988 recording by the Christ Church Cathedral Choir directed by Stephen Darlington on Nimbus NI5150 in my September, 2009, Download Roundup - coupled with another Mass and several motets.
The timings adopted by the Nimbus and Herald recordings are very similar, except in the Agnus Dei, where the new recording respects the usual three-fold repetition and the Nimbus offers a single-clause rendition, liturgically acceptable since Lassus ends the clause with an oft-repeated Miserere nobis - have mercy upon us. Perhaps there were some keen huntsmen in the Christ Church choir, eager to be off to their meet - but perhaps not: in other respects the Oxford performance sounds slightly more reverential than the rather more businesslike version from Cheltenham.
I’m getting ahead of myself, however, in writing about the Agnus Dei first. The other sections are sung extremely well, the manner perhaps a little more brisk than on Nimbus, though that may be attributable to the different acoustics of the Cheltenham College Chapel and Dorchester Abbey, where the Christ Church Choir regularly made their recordings for Nimbus. I don’t wish to imply that the Cheltenham performance is brash - brisk and brusque may be cognates linguistically, but the new version is brisk without being at all brusque. Heard on its own, without side-by-side comparison with the Nimbus - always a dubious practice - their version of the Agnus Dei sounds perfectly prayerful. Both performances are good in their slightly different ways - perhaps the businesslike manner of the Cheltenham version slightly the more appropriate to this short work - and both recordings are good.
Music by Lassus and Tallis frames the programme, with Lassus’ Magnificat septimi toni the penultimate work. It’s one of three Magnificats included on the CD, so the programme also gives a useful taste of three of the many different plainsong tones for this Vespers canticle. Here again, as far as I am aware, there is only one rival recording - again on the same Regent CD as the Missa Venatorum/Jäger. I haven’t heard that recording, but I can’t imagine that the performance could be preferable to that of the Cheltenham Choir.
Two of the three Tallis works face considerably more competition, including versions from professional groups. The Tallis Scholars on Gimell perform O sacrum convivium and Loquebantur on their 2-for-1 set The Tallis Scholars Sing Tallis (CDGIM203). This time the Cheltenham performances are a little slower and more meditative than the Scholars. Heard immediately after the Gimell performances, they might be held to sound a little too slow - after all, the Tallis Scholars are not noted for rushing headlong - but the tempi make perfectly good sense within their own context. The performance of Loquebantur by Armonico Consort on a recent Signum recording (SIGCD180) is slower still; on paper they may seem unduly slow, but I didn’t find them so in this work, though I did elsewhere on that CD.
In any event, the Cheltenham performers are nowhere near in the same slow league, falling between the times on the Gimell and Signum recordings but closer to the former and to The Sixteen in an all-Tallis programme on Chandos CHAN0513, in spirit as well as in tempo. Closest of all to the Cheltenham performance are Chapelle du Roi under Alistair Dixon on Volume 4 of their complete Tallis for Signum (SIGCD010), a series of recordings which have become my joint benchmarks for that composer, alongside the Tallis Scholars, in recent years.
Chapelle du Roi include Tallis’s Nunc dimittis à 5, a work probably dating from the 1540s, on Volume 2 (SIGCD002). Here again the Cheltenham singers linger a little longer than Alistair Dixon’s; I could happily live with both, but one reason for investing in the Signum set - on CD or as downloads from classicsonline.com or passionato.com - would be the ability to compare this Latin setting, dating from a time when the full effects of the reformation had yet to be felt, with Tallis’s much briefer but equally effective English setting on Volume 6 (SIGCD022). Once again the programme for the Herald CD is well chosen in that it includes the Latin Nunc dimittis, a work of which there are few rival versions in the current catalogue - and more importantly in that the performance is so good.
If you had aspirations to be internationally known in the sixteenth century, you needed a Greek, Latin or Italian name: if you are looking for other recordings of Lassus, for example, be aware that he was also known as Lasse and Lasso. Thus the English composer Cooper Italianised himself as Coperario and the Lutheran theologian Johann Heussgen or Husschein (house-light) went one better and made up the pseudo-Greek name Johannes œcolampadius. The composer Hieronymus Schultheiss (judge or magistrate) chose a Latin name, again a translation of the original, Prætorius. Please note that this is not the more famous Michael Prætorius, composer of the famous Dances from Terpsichore, but a talented younger, possibly distantly related, namesake.
His Magnificat quinti toni has been recorded in a fine performance from The Cardinall’s Musick directed by Andrew Carwood on a CD of Prætorius’ Magnificats and Motets (Hyperion CDA67669). The Cheltenham recording, however, is not in direct competition with the Hyperion: Carwood intersperses the Christmas motets, Joseph, lieber Joseph and In dulci jubilo which originally accompanied the Magnificat. Johan van Veen was not entirely convinced by the Hyperion CD, but he thought the Magnificat quinti toni one of the highlights - see review. Though, like JV, I have some reservations - I would have preferred the music to be sung by a choir rather than a small ensemble - I nevertheless recommend the Hyperion recording to all those who love the music of this period.
Ffinch omits the Christmas additions, making the performance suitable for listening all year round. The work is written for two choirs, each of four parts, much in the manner of the fashionable Venetian music, though a little more intimate than some of Prætorius’ music or that of his model, the Gabrielis. If anything, the Cheltenham Choir make it sparkle a little more than The Cardinall’s Musick.
We return to Tudor England for Sheppard’s Epiphany motet, Reges Tharsis - the Kings of Tarshish and the Isle shall offer gifts. The Herald recording comes into contest with The Sixteen here, on one of two inexpensive 2-CD Hyperion Dyad sets of Sheppard’s music, or, more inexpensively still, on the 10-CD budget set The Golden Age of English Polyphony, my Bargain of the Month and of the Year 2009 (CDS44401/10 - see review and review by Ralph Moore). The Cheltenham Choir take the music a little more slowly than The Sixteen - perhaps their Kings are a trifle slow, but I enjoyed the performance.
Morales’ Magnificat primi toni is different in manner from the Prætorius setting but no less impressive. This is not a showy work and I think that it benefits from the treatment which it receives from the Brabant Ensemble on a Hyperion recording which I recommended (CDA67694 - see review). I suggested in that review that Morales perhaps needs to be presented in bright colours; whereas the Cheltenham recording brightens the Prætorius, their Morales is just a little sub-fusc, but they more than compensate in Peter Philips’ exultant Easter motet, Ecce vicit Leo, celebrating the victory of the Lion of Judah.
If you have yet to encounter the music of this recusant who spent most of his active life in continental Europe, I recommend that you do so, though his choral music is sparsely represented in the catalogue - there are more recordings of his keyboard music, including that by Colin Booth on Soundboard SBCD992, which I recommended some time ago - see review. There is a wonderful budget-price CD of his motets on Hyperion Helios, sung by the Winchester Cathedral Choir with The Parley of Instruments directed by David Hill (CDH55254). You will duplicate Ecce vicit Leo, in a slightly more festive performance even than the Cheltenham version, but that’s a small price to pay for these excellent performances of an unfairly neglected composer. If only he had stayed in England, written some music for the Anglican Church and had his Roman loyalties tolerated as those of Tallis and Byrd were.
There is another programme of Philips’ music (Currende on Accent ACC8862D), which I haven’t been able to hear, though I note that the time there for Ecce vicit Leo is almost exactly the same as on the new Herald recording. That recording is listed on the passionato.com website as available for download, but it wasn’t yet actually on stream when I checked - they were still completing their major overhaul. Another programme of Philips’ 5-part works - not duplicating Ecce vicit Leo - is available from Naxos and this can be downloaded from classicsonline.com or passionato.com or streamed via the Naxos Music Library. I have heard and can recommend this recording. (Cantiones Sacræ Quinis Vocibus, Tudor Consort/Peter Walls, 8.555056).
The Herald recording is good throughout - slightly recessed but not unduly so; at just the right distance to suggest that one is listening slightly back from the front pews.
The notes in the booklet give the date of the Prætorius Magnificat as 1589; I’m not sure how this date was obtained, since the work is usually held to be a late masterpiece, postdating the works which were published in 1602. Otherwise Andrew Plant’s commentary is short but to the point. The texts are included, with idiomatic translations. It seems odd, however, to preserve the mid-verse colons from the Prayer Book versions of the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis, since these were intended to indicate how they should be chanted in English and have no relevance to the Latin settings sung on the CD.
Despite the intense and professional competition in some of the pieces, this recording can hold up its head in the most distinguished company. I’m delighted to hear such fine performances from such a young and recently-established group. Long may the independent labels bring us such fine challengers to the established ensembles as this on Herald, the Taverner on Delphian and several recent recordings by The Queen’s College, Oxford, on Guild - see my review of Cæli Porta (Guild GMCD7323).
As I was about to close, I read another review of this recording which, while generally very appreciative, draws attention to a few tuning problems and the over-exposure of the male voices in the Sanctus of the Lassus Mass. I can honestly say that I hardly noticed either of these problems and that they really did not interfere with my enjoyment of this recording. Yes, the opening of the Sanctus is a little underpowered and tentative, but so is the Christ Church version on Nimbus to some extent. More power to the arms of all concerned in producing this recording.