The Spirits of England and France - Volume 4
Missa Caput and the story of the Salve regina
Missa Caput (c.1440) interspersed with the story of the Salve regina; Latin verses [43:50]
Fifteenth Century Carols;
Jesu for thy mercy [2:16]
Jesu fili Dei (Richard Smert and John Trouluffe) [2:48]
Make us merry [1:58]
Nowell, nowell, nowell [3:20]
Clangat tuba [5:13]
Alma Redemptoris mater [6:15]
Agnus Dei (Old Hall Manuscript) [2:23]
Gothic Voices/Christopher Page
Shirley Rumsey, Christopher Wilson and Christopher Page (lutes)
rec. July 1996
HYPERION HELIOS CDH55284 [68:02]
This disc garnered much admiration on its release nearly fifteen years ago, 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.
This disc is like holding the page itself in your own hand.