RECORDING OF THE MONTH
Tudor Church Music
Orlando GIBBONS (1583 - 1625)
Praise the Lord, O my Soul [6.41]
Lord, we beseech thee [3.56]
O Clap your hands [5.52]
Hymns and Songs (nos. 1, 20, 31, 5, 22) [4.27]
O Lord, in thy wrath [3.39]
I am the Resurrection [4.56]
Hymns and Songs (nos. 9, 13, 67, 47, 18, 24, 3, 4) [9.10]
See, see the word is incarnate [7.11]
Hosanna to the Son of David [3.05]
Sing unto the Lord [6.09]
Blessed are they all [5.06]
O Lord, How do increase my woes [1.29]
Preces and Psalm 145 [5.46]
O Lord, I lift my heart to Thee [2.23]
John SHEPPARD (1515 - 1585)
Missa Cantate [30.00]
Spiritus Sanctus [8.37]
Thomas TALLIS (1505 - 1585)
Missa puer natus est nobis [42.01]
Robert WHITE (1538 - 1574)
Lamentations of Jeremiah [25.09]
The Clerkes of Oxenford/David Wulstan)
rec. 1975 and 1977. ADD
PHAIA MUSIC PHU005.7 [3 CDs: 69.56 + 38.37 + 67.10]
The liner-notes for this disc are very much a trap for the unwary. You could
quite easily come away with the idea of the Clerkes of Oxenford being an active
group. Only the recording date, listed on the back of the box, gives the game
away. These recordings are nearly forty years old. Astonishing.
The music here is astonishing too. The Clerkes of Oxenford were a choir unlike
any other. Professor David Wulstan founded it in order to export the music of
early Tudor England and as a practical crucible for his theories about pitch
and about performance.
Typically early Tudor polyphony had two upper parts, the mean and above this
a stratospherically high treble part. Wulstan used the choir to prove that it
was and is possible for young singers to take these parts and sing them with
power and with clarity and lightness. He did not use boys, but young women.
He produced a body of recordings in which the choir performs music of this period
at pitches that few other groups have attempted.
Wulstan as a professor, practitioner and editor was enormously influential on
a whole generation of British performers. Anyone who has heard The Sixteen or
The Tallis Scholars has heard ensembles influenced in some ways by these performances.
The performances are beautifully controlled and perfectly shaped. The girls
singing the treble part produce high clear, vibrato-less sounds which blend
and, combined with the high pitch of the other parts, cause the polyphony to
achieve clarity and transparency.
There are disadvantages; Wulstan was clearly not interested in words. There
is no attempt at period pronunciation and words are clearly secondary to perfection
of musical line. There is also the suspicion that the singers could tire. In
the Gibbons works on the first disc, the solo lines are not always taken at
the same level as the choral singing.
The sound of the choir is quite big and robust. There are clearly rather more
singers in the Tallis than Alistair Dixon used for his recording of the Chapelle
The first disc contains a selection of music by Orlando Gibbons, with a mixture
of anthems, verse anthems and the hymns and songs, these latter assembled into
coherent sequences. All are gravely beautiful but to my ears lack the élan
that more recent performers bring. Even O Clap Your Hands comes over
as rather sombre. There is however some quietly beautiful singing here. Speeds
are generally on the deliberate side. If you compare Philip Ledger’s 1982
recording of Gibbons’ music with the choir of Kings College Cambridge,
then speeds are faster with more rhythmic pointing. Wulstan seems to relish
slow and smoothly produced beauty.
The second disc is devoted to the early Tudor composer John Sheppard. It is
Sheppard’s music with its startlingly high treble lines that I associate
with the sound-world of the Clerkes of Oxenford. They sing Sheppard’s
Missa Cantate and one of his Responds, a substantial work in its own
right. Here the high treble line is given a shape and clarity that belie its
tessitura, testimony to the amount of training that must have been required.
The Respond, by contrast, is sung with counter-tenors on the top line, providing
a vibrant rich texture.
The final disc starts with Tallis’s Missa puer natus est, written
for Queen Mary’s marriage to Philip of Spain. The choir sings a shapely
plainchant introit before launching into the Gloria. Here the top part is by
no means as might be expected for the period. It is written for the unusual
combination of seven voices. The work’s sober mien lends credence to the
idea that it may well have been written for the service for the absolution of
England: undertaken to return the country to Roman Catholicism. Wulstan performs
all the surviving music, Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei complete,
plus the surviving torso of the Credo. Wulstan is sober and steady, even the
Hosannas are controlled rather than lively, but this befits the work’s
penitential nature. The conclusion to the Agnus Dei is mesmerisingly beautiful.
Alistair Dixon’s recording of the mass with the Chapelle du Roi puts rather
more air around the singers and his ensemble seems slimline in comparison. Dixon’s
speeds are faster, Wulstan is again steadier with less rhythmic pointing. Both
use the same sort of pure clean soprano lines.
The final disc finishes with Robert White’s Lamentations of Jeremiah.
Here we return to the high treble part. The effect blends gravity and beauty
with moments of delicacy and daringly quiet singing.
The booklet includes brief notes but no texts.
You can probably find more recent recordings which have a better surface gloss
and technical ability. That said, every library shelf should include some of
Wulstan’s recordings of early Tudor polyphony. I have used the word ‘astonishing’
already, but the performances on this set merit its use again. These performances
influenced generations of British performers and they still sound amazing.
Astonishing …. Amazing.