John TAVERNER (d. 1545)
Imperatrix inferni: Votive Antiphons and Ritual Music
Quemadmodum [5:39]
Audivi vocem [3:50]
Ave Dei patris filia [14:15]
Dum transisset sabbatum [7:48]
Mater Christi [6:11]
Gaude plurimum [15:28]
(Hodie nobis caelorum rex) Gloria in excelsis Deo [4:36]
O splendor gloriae [11:51]
Alamire/David Skinner
rec. Fitzalan Chapel, Arundel Castle, 23-25 November 2010
Latin texts and English translations included
OBSIDIAN CD707 [70:21]

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 within it.

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.

John Quinn

Everything about this release exudes quality. Taverner’s music is brought vividly to life.