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John SHEPPARD (c. 1515-1558)
Gaude, gaude, gaude Maria virgo [14:00]
In pace, in idipsum dormiam [6:09]
The Lord’s Prayer [3:01]
In manus tuas, Domine [4:23]
‘Western Wynde’ Mass [18:28]
Haec dies [2:34]
Christ rising again [3:48]
Spiritus Sanctus procedens [9:58]
Aeterne rex altissime [4:24]
Libera nos, salva nos [3:18]
Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge/Andrew Nethsingha
rec. 11-13 January 2013, St John’s College Chapel, Cambridge.
CHANDOS CHSA0401 [70:07]

This is a very nice disc: beautifully sung; a well-balanced recording in both stereo and a warmly inclusive surround sound, and with a rich selection of John Sheppard’s superb music. What on earth could there be to complain about? Well, nothing, but in fact there are a number of aspects of this release of which your kindly reviewer feels the need to make you aware. After that, it’s up to you.
Styles of choral singing differ, and long may this remain. The comparisons I’ve tended to admire most in this music have been of the purer, reduced-vibrato angelic type best represented in Hyperion’s collection with The Sixteen directed by Harry Christophers. This is all a matter of taste, and I can easily become used to the St John’s College sound in these works, though with plenty of vibrato in the singing the word ‘fruity’ constantly springs to mind. Gems such as the final Libera nos, salve nos gain a kind of magical aura on Hyperion CDA66259, and while this St John’s performance is very good I don’t feel the same overwhelming presence of something other-worldly. I’m not anti-vibrato as such, but these works have such a refinement of counterpoint and polyphony that I find it hard to come to terms with a technical approach which clouds such marvels. Seek out and compare Stile Antico from Harmonia Mundi or the Tallis Scholars on the Gimell label and I hope you’ll be able to hear what I mean.
As I say, this is all a matter of personal taste. Perhaps it is the larger number of singers at St John’s which is bothering me, but that question of vibrato keeps popping up. The Sixteen also indeed uses vibrato, but their mixture of expression and clarity wins every time for me. Looking at the ‘Western Wynde’ Mass, Andrew Nethsingha is relatively brisk in the Gloria and Credo, creating lively contrast with the deeper worlds of the Sanctus and Agnus Dei. These are all performed with a keen sense of commitment, but I miss a feel of real quiet or repose where the mood is required. The substantial opening Gaude, gaude, gaude Maria is also given plenty of passion, but this throws up another aspect of the interpretation which bothers me. There is a tendency here to swoop a little too much between notes, and I know we’re after nice legato lines but other ensembles have shown how this can be achieved with a less lazy switch between intervals larger than a second. If you add all this up in all voices you find another cause for lesser polyphonic clarity throughout.
This is a very fine programme, and if you like the general choral sound then there are good musical experiences to be had. Simpler works such as the four-part In pace, in idipsum dormiam create nice moods, but there was no point in this album that my world stopped turning and I was left speechless with the wonder of it all - and I know this can all too easily happen to me with John Sheppard’s music. I was hoping for more and perhaps wishing for too much when seeking out this release, but if I was still working in the record shop it would be Hyperion’s The Sixteen which I would be pressing into your hand, confident that your musical and spiritual senses will be heightened and transformed.
Dominy Clements   

And another review ...
Here's an enjoyable CD of the choral music of English early Renaissance composer John Sheppard. We don't know much about him; not even when he was Master of the Music at Magdalen, Oxford, and immediately afterwards a member of the Chapel Royal. We have next to nothing about his earlier life.
We can be sure, though, that Sheppard was living and writing during the upheavals of the Reformation. He cannot but have been affected by the enormous changes in religious, and hence musical, practice and traditions of the 1540s and 1550s.
In common with such contemporaries as Carver, Mundy, Tye and Tallis, Sheppard nevertheless composed music of great translucency. It has an almost serene quality, though the performances on this CD don't stint from exposing tinges of - if not roughness - then of gentle 'reality' in the musical whole. Passages in the Gaude [tr.1], for instance, are clearly many-layered and sung in such a way as to convey writing for individual parts and lines. This, rather than the more monolithic wall of sound we are used to in the masses of, say, Sheppard's near contemporaries, Palestrina and Victoria.
This is more evident in the next and third longest - after the Gaude only the Spiritus Sanctus lasts more than five minutes- work here: the In Pace [tr.2]. As the CD proceeds, the singing on work after work is - happily - heard to emphasise expressiveness, emotion, projection of the substance, rather than the flavour, of the texts.
Indeed, these performances have clearly been prepared - and are admirably performed - to reflect the transition from the purely Latin and somewhat Latinate world of pre-Reformation Britain to the new Anglican one. The immediacy of the vernacular one knows in Morley and Weelkes is still a generation away. The Choir of St John's and Andrew Nethsingha capture the moment of that transition admirably: listen to the exuberance of the Mass' Sanctus [tr.8], for instance.
At times, perhaps, the flow of the words in Nethsingha 's hands is a little too … sinewy. The final "Amen" of Our Father [tr.3] is drawn out for just too long; it suggests the legacy of Victorian hymn singing over the purity of Renaissance self-confidence. At times you get the impression that the singers are engaged on pressing a cause, projecting the immediacy of this wonderful music, rather than letting it emerge. The slightly clipped pace of In manus tuas [tr.4] and the melismata in the Mass's Gloria [tr.5] are other examples. The singing becomes very … 'personal'. Geoffrey Clapham's bass chanting of Haec Dies [tr.6] gains much of its impact and immediacy from a slightly pinched articulation more in the fashion of Ensemble Organum, than of an English choir.
The acoustic of St John's Chapel, Cambridge is resonant; at times almost distancing from the music's unmistakable centre of gravity though not a syllable is lost. The balance between soloists and choir is a good one: they're clearly all working in the service of the music. This is all to the good given the times when what amounts to self-consciousness has crept in. The booklet sets the scene for understanding Sheppard, describes each piece, and contains the texts in full in Latin and English.
With the exception of Christ Rising Again, all of the works here presented are available on equally good recordings elsewhere. That shouldn't dissuade you from taking a good look at this release on Chaconne. You'll need to take into consideration that what we hear at times almost suggests that Nethsingha and his choir are trying to prove something about the music, instead of revealing its undoubted beauty and depth.
Mark Sealey