It’s not long since I warmly
welcomed Alamire’s recording of the complete Cantiones
sacrae of Byrd and Tallis. Their latest release, devoted
to the music of John Taverner, maintains the very high standards
of that previous issue.
In his very interesting notes, from which I’ve drawn freely
for the background material in this note, David Skinner makes
the fascinating point that much of Taverner’s music can be dated
with a fair degree of certainty by matching, as it were, the
pieces to the various posts he held during his life. This, I
infer, is particularly true for the fairly short period (1526–1529)
when Taverner was plucked from relative obscurity in rural Lincolnshire
and made the first Informator Choristarum at the substantial
new Oxford college, Cardinal College, founded by Thomas, Cardinal
Wolsey. Of the pieces included here it seems likely that the
Marian pieces, Mater Christi, Ave Dei patris
filia and Gaude plurimum date from that time.
Several others are earlier works, while the extended Jesus antiphon,
O splendor gloriae, and the magnificent Quemadmodum
may date from the years of Taverner’s retreat back to Lincolnshire,
when he settled in Boston.
Much of the music contained in this programme may not be too
well known to collectors, but David Skinner has chosen the contents
with discrimination. The best-known piece is the marvellous
Easter antiphon Dum transiisset sabbatum. In this piece
the singing seems to me to be perfectly balanced, one part with
another. When each strophe ends with the word ‘Alleluia’, Alamire
bring a real fervour to their singing, especially the first
and third times that Taverner sets the word.
Quemadmodum, a setting of words from Psalm 41 (‘Like
as the hart’), unfolds majestically; Skinner and his singers
give the music the right amount of space. The programme also
includes Taverner’s two surviving extended Marian antiphons.
Dr Skinner suggests that Ave Dei patris filia may be
the composer’s earliest large-scale work. That may be so, but
it radiates assurance nonetheless. At times the polyphony sounds
rather dense – or it could be if the singers were less expert
than those involved here. In fact, Alamire achieve a fine degree
of clarity – as they do throughout the recital – and once again
the music is given with the requisite breadth; one feels an
inevitability about it as one listens. Incidentally, the term
‘Imperatrix inferni’ (‘Queen of Hell’), which furnishes the
CD with its title, occurs in a line from this particular piece.
What strikes me most about Gaude plurimum is the textural
variety. Some extended passages are allotted to two or three
solo voices - and different combinations of singers are used
here – all of which means that when the full consort is deployed
the effect is all the greater.
There’s also significant textural variety and contrast in O
splendor gloriae, a magnificent composition. Although I
said that the writing in Ave Dei patris filia, which
is probably an earlier piece, was full of assurance, O splendor
gloriae strikes me as an even more confident composition.
Alamire bring tremendous conviction to their singing of this
piece, though that comment is equally true of the way they sing
all the other pieces on this disc.
I’ve remarked on the clarity of the singing, even when the writing
is at its most complex. Though the principal credit for that
must be given to David Skinner and the singers the recording
plays its part too. The acoustic of the Fitzalan Chapel in Arundel
Castle sounds to be perfect for this sort of music. It seems
to combine resonance and intimacy in just the right proportions
and the engineer, Jim Gross, has done a first rate job in conveying
the acoustic aura of the building and placing the singers ideally
Everything about this release exudes quality. One has an immediately
favourable impression from the beautiful and very elegant sleeve
design and that first impression doesn’t flatter to deceive.
The quality is sustained through the excellent booklet and through
consistently fine performances captured in a splendid recording.
And then, of course, there’s the music itself, which is simply
glorious. John Taverner’s music is brought vividly to life in
this splendid set of performances; I loved every minute of it.