Times Go By Turns
William BYRD (1540-1623)
Mass for Four Voices [21:30]
Richard Rodney BENNETT (1936-2012)
A Colloquy with God [3:32]
John PLUMMER (1410-1483)
Missa sine nomine [25:56]
Andrew SMITH (b. 1970)
Kyrie: Cunctipotens Genitor Deus (2012) [3:42]
Thomas TALLIS (1505-1585)
Mass for Four Voices [19:39]
Gabriel JACKSON (b. 1962)
Ite missa est (2012) [2:32]
New York Polyphony (Geoffrey Williams (counter-tenor), Steven Caldicott Wilson (tenor), Christopher Dylan Herbert (baritone), Craig Phillips (bass))
rec. January 2013, Länna Church, Sweden.
Latin texts and English translations included
This is the second disc by New York Polyphony that has come my way. Back in 2007 I admired a Christmas programme entitled I Sing the Birth (review). Since then this vocal quartet has had a couple of personnel changes though counter-tenor Geoffrey Williams and bass Craig Phillips remain.
This programme includes three English Mass settings. I almost wonder if, in some ways, it might have been even more interesting if the programme ordering had been altered so that we heard the Plummer setting first followed by the Tallis and then the Byrd. That would have presented the settings in chronological order, which is quite important, not least because of the political and religious upheaval that took place in sixteenth-century England, which had such an impact on church music. On the other hand, the programme order, and especially the placing within it of the three contemporary pieces, gives every sign that it has been calculated very precisely so probably one should respect the order in which the pieces have been placed.
I suspect your view of the Byrd performance will be coloured by the sort of sound you prefer in this music. I must admit to a preference for what one hears from The Tallis Scholars. Their recording of the Mass for Four Voices, made in the 1980s, offers a very different experience. As usual with that ensemble there are two singers per part and in their performance they have sopranos on the top line. New York Polyphony, singing at a different pitch, have a counter-tenor on the top line. The likelihood is that Byrd wrote his setting for use at clandestine recusant celebrations of the Mass and there’s a strong case to be made that at such liturgies only a very small number of singers, all of them adult male, might have been available. So, it may well be that the NYP performance is “authentic” and the use of just four voices undoubtedly gives a sense of intimacy. However, comparing this performance with the one by The Tallis Scholars I came down in favour of the English performance. The NYP performance is absolutely immaculate. However, I came to feel that the timbre and sound was somewhat unvarying. Also - and this is highly subjective - the NYP performance was a little detached and didn’t offer as much emotional engagement as that offered by The Tallis Scholars. Both ensembles offer tremendous clarity in their delivery of the part-writing and in this respect NYP’s use of one voice to a part perhaps gives them a slight edge.
I must say that the reservations that I’ve just described didn’t really apply to the Tallis Mass. That may indicate that I became used to the sound made by New York Polyphony but in fact I’m inclined to think this is the best of all the performances on the disc. It’s uncertain when the setting was composed - or why. In his very good notes Geoffrey Williams says perceptively that the setting is “an odd hybrid: Catholic in intent and Anglican in execution.” I wonder if it was not written in the expectation that it would be used in recusant Catholic liturgies: the style of the music seems to be more ‘public’ than that of Byrd’s setting. Oddly, Tallis omits several lines of the Credo - though not as many as were left out by John Plummer. Perhaps because the style of the music feels more ‘public’ the singing of NYP seems to deliver a much stronger emotional charge than I had experienced in the Byrd performance. They impart welcome energy to both the Gloria and Credo and I admired their spacious account of the Sanctus. Unless you insist on a larger ensemble in such music you’ll find that this is an excellent performance of the Mass and the singing is extremely polished.
John Plummer’s Missa sine nomine is for three voices (TBarB). Textually it’s interesting for a number of reasons. In the first place the Kyrie is not the usual tripartite plea for mercy; instead Plummer sets a much longer, troped text. He also omits quite a lot of the text of both the Gloria and the Credo. It’s suggested in the notes that the reason for these omissions may be that the entire text would be recited by the celebrant and so the omission of words from a musical setting would not be thought a problem. That sounds plausible though I must say that, divorced from a liturgical context, it is a little odd to move in the Credo straight from the Resurrection on the third day to ‘et vitam venturi saeculi. Amen.’ without missing a beat, as it were. Geoffrey Williams suggests that Plummer’s “gentle lyricism is more Renaissance than medieval in execution” though I’m not sure I’d completely agree with that; certainly by the side of Tallis and Byrd Plummer’s music has a very much earlier feel.
The particular skill in assembling this programme lies in the way three short contemporary pieces have been woven into it. It’s not entirely clear when the late Sir Richard Rodney Bennett composed A Colloquy with God. The notes tell us that after hearing New York Polyphony sing in 2012 Bennett “gifted” the piece to them. That suggests to me it had already been written, but probably fairly recently. Is this its first recording? It’s a setting of some lines by Sir Thomas Browne (1605-1682) and it’s a fastidiously crafted little piece which this quartet sings beautifully.
The other two pieces were written for the group - Andrew Smith’s expressly for this recording - so I think we can be fairly sure these are recorded premières. Not only are both very interesting pieces but their inclusion in this programme, and at the respective specific points in the proceedings is very intelligent. The Tallis Mass lacks a Kyrie, as was a frequent practice at the time. Andrew Smith’s piece therefore acts as an apt preface and he follows the precedent of John Plummer in setting a troped text, Cunctipotens Genitor Deus (‘All-powerful Father, God’). I’m not sure what the source of the words is but Smith’s short piece, though indisputably modern, is not unidiomatic in the context of the Tallis Mass. The juxtaposition works very well. Gabriel Jackson’s Ite missa est is a fitting text with which to conclude a programme mainly consisting of Mass settings. Written for this ensemble, it’s well described in the notes as “playfully intricate”. It’s ingenious, not least in the way arresting sonorities are conjured from just four voices. This extrovert little piece makes an apt conclusion to the programme.
Throughout this enterprising sequence the singing of New York Polyphony is immaculate. They have been beautifully recorded in a Swedish church. As is invariably the case with this label, the booklet is extremely well produced. In conclusion I should explain the title of the programme. It’s taken from the first stanza of a poem by the English Catholic martyr, Robert Southwell (1561-1595). The poem is printed in full at the front of the booklet and Geoffrey Williams weaves some couplets from the poem into his notes.
An enterprising programme immaculately sung by New York Polyphony.
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