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John TAVERNER (c.1490-1545)
Missa Corona Spinea [47:49]
Dum transisset Sabbatum II [6:51]
Dum transisset Sabbatum I [7:25]
The Tallis Scholars/Peter Phillips
rec. Merton College Chapel, Oxford, date unspecified
Latin texts, English, French, German translations included
GIMELL CDGIM 046 [62:07]

Reviewed as CD (JQ) and from 24-bit download with booklet from Hyperion (BW) - also available in mp3 and 16-bit and in the same and additonal formats from Gimell.

This is, I think, the third recording of a Mass by John Taverner that Peter Phillips and the Tallis Scholars have made. They recorded the Western Wind Mass as far back as 1993 (review). They waited some twenty years before committing another Taverner Mass to disc: the great Missa Gloria tibi Trinitas was issued in 2013 to mark in sumptuous style the group’s fortieth anniversary (review). It may be coincidence but within weeks of achieving another important milestone – their 2000th concert (review) – along comes a new recording of another opulent Taverner Mass: Missa Corona Spinea.

Missa Corona Spinea (‘The Crown of Thorns’) is one of Taverner’s most important and ambitious works. It’s conceived on a grand scale; Peter Phillips notes that it’s more than one hundred modern bars longer than Missa Gloria tibi Trinitas, which itself is a very substantial piece indeed. An indication – but only an indication – of the scale of Missa Corona Spinea can be gleaned from the fact that Phillips’ recorded performance of Missa Gloria tibi Trinitas plays for some six minutes less (42:21). In his notes Phillips speculates plausibly that the Mass was probably written for a big occasion and that perhaps this occasion was a visit in 1527 by King Henry VIII and his then Queen, Catherine of Aragon, to Cardinal College, Oxford, founded by Taverner’s patron, Cardinal Wolsey.

The Mass is elaborately scored in six parts (TrMATBB) and what I might term the extremities of the scoring call for comment. In the first place the treble line is extraordinarily – and unremittingly – high-lying. Secondly, Taverner anchors the ensemble with not one but two bass parts. As Peter Phillips points out, it would have been more usual to have two alto parts. To employ an architectural analogy one might suggest that the high and decorative treble line is akin to the tracery in the fan vaulting that was so much a feature of pre-Reformation English ecclesiastical buildings while the bass parts provide support similar to that afforded by flying buttresses. Faced with Taverner’s opulent writing, and perhaps feeling the need to reinforce his trebles, Phillips has expanded his normal two voices per part forces; here the Tallis Scholars number 18 singers in all (3/2/4/3/3/3).

Perhaps the inevitable comparator for this new recording is the 1989 Hyperion recording by Harry Christophers and The Sixteen, which has previously been reviewed by Brian Wilson and Ralph Moore. There’s a great deal to admire in the Christophers recording but there are two crucial differences between it and the new Tallis Scholars version. One concerns the recorded sound. The Hyperion recording was made in St Jude-on-the-Hill Church in London. Christophers’ choir is placed further away from the microphones than are the Tallis Scholars. Gimell’s recording is more closely balanced – though not in an oppressive way. This means that there’s more of an acoustic halo round The Sixteen while the sound of the Tallis Scholars has much more impact. The aural effect - or illusion - is that with Gimell you feel as if you’re hearing the singers from a seat nearby in the quire whereas Hyperion offers you a seat in a pew situated a few rows back from the altar rail. This has implications for the music; the polyphony emerges with much greater clarity on the Gimell recording.

The other important difference is to do with pacing. For once, the respective timings do give a fair view. Harry Christophers takes 39:07, compared with Peter Phillips’ overall timing of 47:49. The difference in timings reflect the fact that at almost every turn Christophers adopts a swifter tempo which, it seems to me, is consistent with a very different view of the work as compared to Peter Phillips.

The Gloria offers a good – and fairly typical – example of the respective approaches. From the start Peter Phillips evidences a more spacious view of the music than does his colleague. Perhaps there’s a bit more flamboyance and athleticism to Christophers’ performance and some may well prefer that. However, I think Phillips brings out the sheer grandeur of the piece to a much greater degree. As I indicated earlier, the part-writing registers with far greater clarity in the Gimell recording. The arresting treble line is even more evident in the Phillips reading than in the Christophers version. When we get to ‘Qui tollis’ (at 5:33 in the Gimell account, 4:18 with The Sixteen) Phillips invests the music with a satisfying degree of breadth. Christophers eases his tempo too but his approach is the more flowing of the two. The Phillips performance sounds more devotional. At ‘Qui sedes’ Taverner deploys all six parts together and the Tallis Scholars produce a very full and majestic sound – and the fearsome treble line sounds absolutely secure, as it does from The Sixteen.† Phillips steps up the pace at ‘Cum sancto Spiritu’ and there’s a palpable air of jubilation. At this point Christophers is quicker and his performance is very exciting; however, the polyphony is nowhere near as clear on his recording.

I’ve gone into some detail about the Gloria. I don’t propose to continue the detailed comparisons because this movement of the Mass typifies the respective approaches of the two performances throughout the work as a whole.† Phillips’ account of the Credo is superb, especially in several passages where all six parts are heard. In these sections the Tallis Scholars produce rich, full sound and the polyphonic writing positively buzzes. The full-throated ‘Hosanna’ section of the Sanctus is thrilling while the Benedictus that follows is serene and long-breathed. Partway through the Benedictus, at ‘Qui venit in nomine Domini’ (track 7 from 0:41) Peter Philips draws our attention to a gimell, in which the treble part divides into two. This is an extraordinarily elaborate and extended example of this device and it’s splendidly caught by the engineers.

Taverner caps this achievement a few minutes later. The first section of the three-fold Agnus Dei unfolds in a timeless fashion – this is an excellent example of Peter Phillips’ spacious and patient approach to the music paying huge dividends. In the second Agnus (track 10, from 1:29) there’s a double gimell in which not only the treble part but also the mean is divided. This is even more remarkable than the first use of the device; Taverner’s invention is even more lavish and once again the gimell writing is very extended.

This is a magnificent recording of Missa Corona Spinea. The singing shows all the customary hallmarks of a Tallis Scholars recording: absolute precision, immaculate balance and blend; flawless tuning; and great commitment to the music. I should single out for special praise Janet Coxwell, Amy Haworth and Emma Walshe who sustain Taverner’s stratospherically high treble line. The part is tremendously demanding yet there’s never the slightest hint of strain in the singing which has consistent purity of tone and a laser-like focus. I’m thoroughly convinced by Peter Phillips’ spacious and often majestic approach to the music. I wouldn’t by any means dismiss the Christophers account; I admire the energy and drive in what is a very valid alternative way with the music. However, I think that the Tallis Scholars convey more successfully the grandeur which is at the heart of this Mass setting and the recorded balance means that their singing has greater impact than is achieved on the Hyperion disc. Should you discard the Hyperion in favour of this new Gimell? No, but if you already have the Christophers performance you should add this new recording because the two conceptions of the work are different and complementary; collectors of English polyphony should on no account miss this Gimell disc. For myself, I have a strong preference for the Tallis Scholars but The Sixteen also have much to say about this extraordinary work.

The attraction of the new disc is enhanced by the addition of both of Taverner’s wonderful settings of the Easter Sunday Matins Respond, Dum transisset Sabbatum. It seems almost superfluous to say that both are superbly performed.

This is a spectacular disc from the Tallis Scholars.

John Quinn

Another review ...

My love affair with Taverner’s Missa Corona Spinea goes back a long way to a Saga LP on which it was performed by the Schola Cantorum of Oxford directed by John Byrt.† It first appeared at full price in 1969 and reappeared at budget price on Saga in 1973, soon after the birth of The Tallis Scholars.† Like the new Gimell, it was coupled with Dum transisset Sabbatum I and it cost all of £0.79.† (SAGA5369).† Unfortunately the note at the end of Jeremy Noble’s otherwise very positive review in Gramophone that the recording was ‘not quite all it might be’ and that the low recording level was irritating ‘when the surface [was] not free from snaps and crackles’ was an understatement in the latter respect.† Like, I’m sorry to say, most Saga releases until much later when they were manufactured in Germany, it sounded as if it had been pressed on medium-coarse sandpaper, but the performances, especially that of Dum transisset, set a very high benchmark in my unconscious.

Since then we have had two other benchmark recordings of the Mass which appeared around the same time in late 1989: one with boys’ voices on the top parts and another, like the new Gimell, with mixed voices from The Sixteen and Harry Christophers (Hyperion CDH55051, with Gaude plurimum and In pace, in idipsum or as part of budget-price 10-CD set, The Golden Age of English Polyphony, CDS44401/10).† As John Quinn has made some detailed comparisons with the recording by The Sixteen, I shall not go over the same ground, merely echoing his preference for the Scholars but retaining an intention by no means to jettison The Sixteen.

In principle recordings with boy trebles and means should get us closer to the sound which Taverner would have expected.† That’s especially true of the version from Christ Church, Oxford, directed by Francis Grier (with O Wilhelme, pastor bone, ASV CDGAU115, download only or as a special pressing from Presto): Taverner was the choirmaster of the short-lived Cardinal College, Oxford, which later became Christ Church and his Masses were probably intended for performance there, though the ASV underplayed the special nature of their recording, made using the descendants of Taverner’s choristers,†by suggesting that the music had been intended not for Oxford but for the more modest parochial forces at Tattershall.† With rather brisk tempos and high pitch Grier places great demands on his team, especially the boys, but they come through brilliantly for him and I shall want to continue to hear this recording alongside the Gimell.

More recently Delphian recorded another traditional Anglican choir, that of St Mary’s Cathedral, Edinburgh, in the music of Taverner: Dum transisset Sabbatum I; Leroy Kyrie; Missa Corona Spinea; Dum transisset Sabbatum II and O splendor glorie (DCD34023).† As it happens, John Quinn and I both reviewed this – we often cover the same repertoire.† That’s another Recording of the Month – reviewreview – which we both greatly enjoyed despite or even because of the fast tempi adopted by Duncan Ferguson.† It’s especially valuable in prefacing the Mass, which has no setting of the Kyrie, as usual with Tudor settings, with Taverner’s ‘spare’ Leroy Kyrie.

At first hearing sixteenth-century polyphony presents a wall of sound.† It’s a superbly built wall, but listen more attentively and it’s a wall in which the various parts are constantly moving and interlocking in different combinations.† Even the number of the parts changes from one moment to the other, but it takes all the tricks of modern technology to record them so that we can hear them all.† The ASV and Hyperion recordings are good but the new Gimell goes one or two better in offering, in addition to the CD, downloads in 24/96 (£15 from Gimell or Hyperion) and 24/176.4 sound, flac or alac.† I downloaded the former but even the top quality is not expensive – £18 from Gimell or Hyperion, with 24/48 and 24/96 5.1 surround also available from Gimell.† I also tried the 16-bit CD-quality download in order to burn it to disc and that sounds excellent, too.† The 5.1 version sounds like a must-have for listeners with the right equipment.

The Recording of the Month designation comes from both of us.† I’ve been playing this music for over a month and itching to write up the review and feeling constrained by the request to do so only around the time of the release.† I’ve never tired of listening to it.† I’m not a great fan of hearing music on the train but Missa Corona Spinea has accompanied me several times recently via the Sony Walkman, the latest version of which will play 24-bit quality files.† I’ve even used it to test a new television sound-base, to which the Walkman ‘talks’ via Bluetooth.

All those years ago it wasn’t just the Corona Spinea Mass which captivated me, superb as that is.† If anything, I found the Easter respond Dum transisset I even more entrancing.† It’s a much more elaborate setting than Dum transisset II, with especially haunting repetitions of the word aromata – the spices which the women had brought to the tomb.† Schola Cantorum did that superbly but the Tallis scholars are at least their match and, by including both settings, they allow us to compare.† They didn’t quite convince me that II is the equal of I but I can’t imagine better advocacy.

Many times in the past I’ve thought that the Tallis Scholars had reached their peak but yet again, as when I recently reported on their 200th concert – review – they have proved that they are still on top form, perhaps even surpassing their previous best.† With recording to match – go for one of the 24-bit downloads if possible, but the CD is fine, too – lovers of Tudor polyphony should not hesitate.

Brian Wilson

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