Virgin and Child: Music From the Baldwin Part Books - Volume 2
Thomas TALLIS (c.1505-1585)
Gaude gloriosa Dei mater [18:33]
Magnificat [10:25]
Videte miraculum [13:20]
John TAVERNER (c.1490-1545)
Mater Christi [6:50]
Robert WHITE (1538-1574)
Tota pulchra es [7:24]
Regina caeli [3:20]
Robert FAYRFAX (1464-1521)
Ave Dei Patris filia [10:25]
John SHEPPARD (c.1515-1558)
Verbum caro [9:56]
Contrapunctus/Owen Rees
rec. church of St. Michael and All Angels, Oxford, UK, 19-21 April 2016
Texts and translations included

The first volume of Contrapunctus’ survey of the Baldwin Partbooks knocked me for six when I first heard it (review), and so I jumped at the chance to hear Part Two. It’s every bit as rewarding, brilliantly sung and beautifully curated, and in some ways it’s even finer than that first disc.

The second volume makes it clear the Owen Rees’ survey of the Baldwin partbooks is to be thematic: Part One focused on motets about death and judgement, while this one comprises hymns to the Virgin Mary. They open big, beginning with what is, perhaps, the greatest thing in all English polyphony. Spem in alium gets more headlines, but in reality it’s the Gaude gloriosa that is Tallis’ crowning achievement; a huge, soaring evocation of the Virgin Mary’s reasons for rejoicing and, by extension, a depiction of the various vaults of heaven over which she reigns. It’s a vast work, sustaining the text with fervent intensity throughout its nearly twenty minute span, and it is high praise for me to say that Contrapunctus give it perhaps the grandest, most awe-inspiring performance of it that I think I’ve heard. There is skill and complexity to spare here, the men beginning to spin the great web with purposefulness and momentum, and the first entry of the sopranos at 2:14 is an important staging-post: lucid, clean, angelic, transporting.

The thing that struck me most about the sound in Volume One was its intimacy and closeness; but in this disc it’s the scale and the breadth that made the most immediate impression. I’m not altogether sure why that’s the case, but it underlines the choir’s confidence with their material, and their commitment to the cause of bringing this music to life. The recorded sound helps, too, with a feeling of space and breadth that allows these works to come to vibrant life.

That’s often particularly helpful for the shorter works, such as Taverner’s Mater Christi, which is beautifully simple, and can sound like something of a jolt coming straight after the Gothic complexity of Tallis’ Gaude gloriosa.  White’s Tota pulchra es is direct and clean, while his Regina caeli is gently celebratory.

Tallis’ Magnificat setting has a very appealing (and well contrasted) combination of plainsong and bright, upward-looking harmonies, and there is gorgeous sense of awed rapture to Videte miraculum. Similarly, Fayrfax’s Ave Dei Patris filia is meditative, hushed and gently awed, despite the relative simplicity of its means.

Importantly, Contrapunctus manage to invest each piece with a very different flavour, and bring the contrasting colours to vibrant life. Sheppard’s Verbum caro, for example sounds bright, clean, almost jubilant in places, a different sound world compared to what had gone just before.

This is a very fine disc, if anything even finer than the first volume. If they carry on like this then Owen Rees and Contrapunctus will be gifting us a series of major importance. Full texts and translations are included, alongside Rees’ own scholarly programme note.

Simon Thompson

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