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John SHEPPARD (c. 1515-1558)
Libera nos, salva nos I [2:37]
Reges Tharsis et insulae [5:10]
Gaude virgo Christiphera [10:33]
Sacris solemnis [7:30]
Kyrie Lux et origo (Kyrie Paschale) [3:34]
Missa Cantate [25:09]
Adesto sancta Trinitas II [4:26]
Hodie nobis caelorum rex [2:50]
Verbum caro [7:03]
Choir of St. Mary’s Cathedral, Edinburgh/Duncan Ferguson
rec. 29-31 January and 18-20 September, 2013, St Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral, Edinburgh. DDD
Latin texts and English translations included
DELPHIAN DCD34123 [68:59]

Not long ago I was deeply impressed by a recording of music by John Taverner made by Duncan Ferguson and his fine Edinburgh Cathedral choir (review). Subsequently I heard them perform music of our own time, in the shape of a thrilling disc of music by Gabriel Jackson (review). Now they’ve returned to Tudor England to give us a recital of music by John Sheppard.
In an excellent, informative note Duncan Ferguson explains why Sheppard’s music has been under-performed and, indeed, somewhat neglected: to some degree this is because scholarly performing editions of his works only became available slowly and relatively recently. I have to admit that much of the music in this programme was new to me and one piece, Adesto sancta Trinitas II here receives its first recording while the recording of Hodie nobis caelorum rex is the first in which the music is heard as the composer apparently intended it.
Dominating the programme is the Missa Cantate. This is a Festal Mass on a grand scale featuring six-part writing. It probably dates from the 1550s and, more specifically, from the reign of Queen Mary I (1553-58) when Catholicism enjoyed a final brief flowering in England. I don’t know if it was written with a specific Feast day in mind. The setting of the Gloria features a good deal of elaborate writing. The Edinburgh choir launch themselves into this music in fine style and similarly into the Credo. In the Credo Sheppard’s busy textures are pared down dramatically for the ‘Et incarnatus est’ section, to telling effect. This means that when the full choir picks up the music at ‘Et resurrexit’ the impact is tremendous, as Sheppard surely intended. The Sanctus and the Benedictus are more restrained but both end with exuberant ‘Hosannas’. The Agnus Dei is wonderfully prayerful. As was common at the time there is no setting of the Kyrie so Duncan Ferguson takes the pragmatic approach of prefacing the Mass with a separate Kyrie composed for the Second Vespers of the Resurrection. The Mass is performed superbly; it affords a good number of opportunities for solos from within the choir and all these are very well taken.
Of the two pieces receiving premiere recordings it was the one that is here recorded for the first time as heard here that especially caught my ear. Hodie nobis caelorum rex is a setting of the first responsory for Matins on Christmas Day. What’s unusual about it is the vocal forces that are employed. Most of the text is chanted by the adult male voices of the choir. I like the way Ferguson paces the chant, which is an elaborate one; it’s taken at quite a brisk pace and thus conveys a spirit not just of joyfulness but also of some urgency. Part way through, however, the chant is interrupted briefly by the singing of the words ‘Gloria in excelsis Deo et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis’. This phrase is sung by three trebles and, in Ferguson’s description, ‘a very agile tenor’. I like his suggestion that this tenor might have been the vocal tutor to the trebles. These four voices are heard from a distance and the effect is arresting.
Gaude virgo Christiphera (‘Rejoice, O Virgin, bearer of the Christ-Child’) is a Marian piece, the only surviving such piece by Sheppard. The treble part has not come down to us and we hear the work on this recording in a new performing edition by Magnus Williamson which sounds utterly convincing to me. This is an extensive, elaborate setting and Duncan Ferguson is surely right in making a comparison with the music of Sheppard’s illustrious predecessor, John Taverner. Sacris solemnis is a hymn, the words to which are by St. Thomas Aquinas. One verse is the celebrated text ‘Panis Angelicus’. Sheppard’s setting alternates verses of chant and polyphony. Of particular interest here is that most of the chant verses are sung in fauxbourdon, three-part harmony.
There isn’t a piece on this disc that isn’t full of interest. Ferguson says that David Wulstan, an early champion of Sheppard, described this composer as ‘an Olympian figure of mid-sixteenth century polyphony.’ Such is the quality of the performances here that Wulstan’s judgement seems apt. The Edinburgh choir has had a mix of girls and boys on its treble line for many years - since 1978, in fact. For this recording there are 19 singers on the treble line - 11 of them girls - plus three male altos, three tenors, four baritones and three basses. That we are going to hear a choir in fine form is evident in the opening piece, Libera nos, salva nos. The choral sound in this seven-part piece is bright sad well-focused; the lines are clear and the attack is excellent. That sets the standard for everything that is to follow.
The choir sings extremely well throughout but I hope that the gentlemen will not mind if I single out the trebles for special praise. There are a few photos of them in the booklet in which they look bright-eyed, lively and full of enthusiasm: that’s just how they sound, too. Sheppard’s writing is physically demanding, the tessitura often high and the phrases long. It’s also demanding of the intelligence for these young singers have to know not just how to navigate through their parts but, critically, how to do so making musical sense of the notes. These young singers are fearless in the face of these demands. They’re accurate too - there’s no pitching ‘in the crack’. Hats off to the Edinburgh trebles and, indeed, to the whole choir. Duncan Ferguson has clearly trained them expertly. I love to hear such music sung by small expert groups of adult singers such as The Tallis Scholars and The Sixteen. However, it’s just as pleasing to hear it well sung by a choir who would sing it in a liturgical context - the sort of choir Sheppard might have envisaged, albeit all-male in composition.
The impact that the choir’s performances make is assisted greatly by yet another fine recording by Delphian’s Paul Baxter. The first impression you have is that you’re quite close to the choir but, in fact, the sound image that Baxter has given us seems to me to replicate what one would hear seated in the quire. Yet the recording is not too close; the acoustic ambience registers pleasingly. The sound is sumptuous - as befits the music - but is also admirably clear, which is vital when dealing with these often-complex choral textures.
This is another outstanding disc from Duncan Ferguson and his excellent choir. More, please.
John Quinn