This disc garnered much admiration on its release nearly fifteen
years ago (CDA66857), and its re-appearance in Helios colours
is eminently to be admired. Seldom before had fifteenth century
English liturgical music been sung with such consistently confident
attack. Seldom too had one felt in such assured hands, vocally
speaking, as with this early-mid line-up of Gothic Voices. Margaret
Philpot and Rogers Covey-Crump, both inaugural members of the
original group, had left but their replacements followed in
their august steps.
It was also a first, I think, for the group in the tackling
of a complete Mass. This was the enormously influential mid-fifteenth
century Missa Caput, composed by an anonymous Englishman around
1440. It survives in seven separate manuscripts, which attests
to its popularity, and both Ockeghem and Obrecht are known to
have used it as models for their own Masses, and in its deliberate
use of a fourth, contra-tenor part it also set a vital precedent
for, as Andrew Kirkman and Christopher Page point out in their
booklet notes, the whole idea of SATB.
Listening once again to this performance what strikes me most
of all - even acknowledging, as one does, the tonal blend, the
timbral colour, the pitching, and a number of other things -
is the sheer dynamism of the singing, its energy level, and
the underlying shape, the rise and fall, of the music-making.
It is not simply a disc, it is a lived performance -
or that’s how it sounds, and that’s one of the toughest
things of all to convey, cold, studio-bound, not least in this
of all music.
The warmth of the singing, its purity of attack, the perfectly
timed caesuri, the play of texture and colour - all these are
constants, and one can do no better than to allude to the Gloria
for its remarkable fluidity in this performance - and to the
fruitful invention of the music itself, quite astonishingly
complex and moving both in its localised impression and in its
architectural span. Interspersed with the Mass are verses from
a Latin song that is devoted to the origins of Salve regina,
the famed Marian antiphon. In this way monody and polyphony
are alternated. This decision can be respected as an honest
awareness of the utility of breaking up the Mass for a contemporary
listener in this way. It may have been thus in the fifteenth
century, but as likely it was not. We at least can programme
the full Mass sequence, omitting the Latin verses if we wish.
In addition to the Mass we have examples primarily of carols.
Three are sung, and three are played (on three lutes). Nimble
and free-flowing these too exert an evocative allure. Perhaps
the finest point of these particular performances comes in Alma
Redemptoris mater in which all the highest virtues of music
and its execution are in full accord. This, surely, one feels,
is how it was when it was first performed - and in this transformative
leap, great performances resound. However unanswerable the thought
may be - we simply can’t know how it sounded - it’s
the act of restoration that impresses so deeply. It seems superfluous
to add that the recording is perfectly judged and that there
are full texts.
This is a disc that seems to appropriate a time and a place
to itself. Sometimes in recordings one feels one is lifting
a protective leather flap and seeing the brilliance of the illuminated
page in its glass cabinet beneath. This disc is like holding
the page itself in your own hand.