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RECORDING OF THE MONTH  


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John SHEPPARD (c.1515–1558)
Media vita and other sacred music
Media vita [29:58]
including Nunc Dimittis [1:46]
Gaude, gaude, gaude Maria [14:49]
Missa Cantate [34:58]
Westminster Cathedral Choir/Martin Baker
rec. All Hallows, Gospel Oak, London, 14-15 July 2016. DDD.
Texts and translations included
HYPERION CDA68187 [79:45]

Reviewed as 24/96 download with pdf and epub booklets from hyperion-records.co.uk.

Most of the great English composers of the Sixteenth Century had to work in troubled times. John Sheppard may have had slightly fewer changes of religious gear to contend with than Thomas Tallis, since he died on the eve of Elizabeth I’s accession which brought the final shift, but he seems to have started composing around 1534, the traumatic year of Henry VIII’s break with Rome. Most of his music which has been preserved consists of Latin settings from the reigns of Henry VIII and Mary I, with a very few English examples from the brief reign of the ultra-protestant Edward VI.

Ironically most of his extant music was copied in the reign of the moderate Protestant Elizabeth I when it would no longer have had liturgical significance. It may well, however, have been sung after Mattins or Evensong ‘in Quires and places where they sing’ where Latin was ‘understanded of the people’, such as Christ Church, Oxford, where it is preserved in the ‘Baldwin Partbooks’, five extant of an original set of six.

For a comparison of Sheppard’s style in Latin and English, one example of each is included on a recording from Westminster Abbey Choir directed by James O’Donnell (CDA67704 – review). Though it’s entitled Mary and Elizabeth at Westminster Abbey, I rather think that the Sheppard settings of the evening canticles on that album date not from the reign of the latter but from a period even before the first English Prayer Book of 1549 when English was being used experimentally in the liturgy. Whatever the case, the more elaborate style on that CD of Libera nos, salva nos I offers a striking contrast with the English Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis. Which is not to deny that the latter has an appeal of its own, similar to the English-texted works of Tallis and Byrd.

The CD from which I reviewed that recording having disappeared at the back of the cupboard – sadly the fate of many of my CDs – I was pleased to be able to make its acquaintance again and enjoy it via a lossless download with booklet from hyperion-records.co.uk.

Contrapuntus, directed by Oliver Reed, have recently recorded for Signum a selection from the Baldwin partbooks and Sheppard’s Media Vita closes and gives its name to In the Midst of Life (SIGCD408 – review). It’s the antiphon to the compline canticle Nunc Dimittis for the latter part of Lent and it’s performed there and on the new Hyperion together with that canticle. The text was raided by Archbishop Cranmer and expanded, appropriately, as one of the opening sentences for funerals.

In reviewing the Signum I compared recordings by The Tallis Scholars (Gimell - see below), The Sixteen (Coro COR16077), Stile Antico (Harmonia Mundi) and the Gabrieli Consort (DG, download only). Of these Stile Antico on an all-Sheppard recording (Media Vita) take the music most slowly, at 25:32 and I thought that appropriate for the nature of the words. Westminster Cathedral Choir give the music even more time to breathe and while I certainly don’t intend to jettison any of the other very distinguished recordings which I have mentioned, theirs seems to me the best approach of all, with no sense that the performance is dragging.

Not least of the virtues of this new recording is that whereas all the others use professional female voices on the top line the new recording employs boy trebles who sing with a security of tone to rival – and even excel – those of Westminster Abbey down the road, King’s College, Cambridge, and Christ Church, Oxford.

Gaude, gaude, Maria also has a number of distinguished recordings to its credit including from The Sixteen (Golden Age of English Polyphony, with Mundy, Taverner, etc., Hyperion CDS44401/10, 10 CDs budget price – Bargain of the Month – also available separately as downloads from hyperion-records.co.uk), Christ Church, Oxford (Nimbus NI7096 – review) and St John’s, Cambridge (Chandos CHSA0401 – review). I had some reservations about the Nimbus, which in any case is tied up in a Christmas collection, but liked the Chandos, especially for the very fine 24-bit sound. Martin Baker and his Westminster Cathedral choir out-sing both and the Hyperion, in 24-bit format, also sounds excellent.

Sheppard’s Missa Cantate has also received several distinguished recordings, including from the Choir of St Mary’s Cathedral, Edinburgh (Delphian DCD34123: Recording of the Month – review review) and The Sixteen (Golden Age, see above). Once again, however, the new recording is at least the equal of these very fine alternatives.

The elephant in the room in all this comes from The Tallis Scholars and Peter Phillips, whose recording of In media vita I mentioned in passing. Their recording comes on several highly recommendable collections of Sheppard’s music on Gimell. Normally given to measured tempi in Tudor music, they buck the trend here by making as strong a case for a fast 21:33 as Westminster Cathedral choir do for 29:58.

I shall not be abandoning The Tallis Scholars’ In media vita, especially as the various formats on which it appears also contain several other very valuable performances: on a single full-price CD with seven other works, but better value on a 2-for-1 set containing the same music plus his Western Wynde Mass and music by Thomas Tallis and Robert White (CDGIM210 – Bargain of the Month) or In media vita alone with a tempting selection from the Scholars’ distinguished catalogue on another 2-for-1 The Essential Tallis Scholars (GDGIM201 – review Tallis Scholars at 30). Both of those can be obtained for 7.99 as lossless downloads with pdf booklets from Hyperion – here and here.

The Scholars would be my first choice among the many distinguished recordings from mixed-voice choirs – all that I have mentioned do justice to Sheppard’s music – but there’s something very special about hearing the new Westminster Cathedral recording which makes it my first choice – especially as The Tallis Scholars have not (yet) recorded Missa Cantate.

Whichever option you choose, if you like Tudor music but have not yet become properly acquainted with that of John Sheppard, you really should do so. The new Hyperion is one of the best ways to begin that acquaintance – or to renew it.

Brian Wilson

 




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