This is in so many ways a really significant and important release as I shall explain.
I remember when I first read Frank Ll. Harrison’s book Music in Medieval England (Routledge and Kegan Paul 1958). I was excited to read about Nicholas Ludford who seems to have been remarkably prolific and quite a substantial amount of his music survives (which is rare for the period) but whose music it seemed impossible to hear. He wrote, “Ludford’s writing is flowing and sonorous” and he gives several examples of Ludford’s ingenious counterpoint.
Equally helpful as far as this release is concerned, Harrison wrote later (page 376), “The order of Alleluias in Ludford’s cycle of daily lady masses corresponds to that prescribed in the Sarum missal and the method of performance is quite clear, observing the division between solo and chorus (vocal polyphony)”. That is more or less what happens in this new recording under David Swinson.
Ludford, who worked at St. Stephen’s Westminster, now Westminster Palace during the 1520s-1540’ wrote two kinds of masses, Lady Masses which were simply daily masses sung in the crypt of the palace (which you can still visit) and large-scale festal masses, which were sung in the main church above now the Hall. Ten of these masses are known and these latter have received the most attention: first, by Andrew Carwood at the Cardinal’s Music in 1993 Missa Videte Miraculum (ASV GAU 1310), Missa Benedicta et Venerabilis (GAU 132), Missa Laidaverunt Stephanum (GAU 140), and Missa Christi Virgo Dilectissima (GAU 133). These all in 1993-4. Since then Blue Heron under Scott Metcalfe have recorded, with editions by Nick Sandon Missa inclina cor meum (Peterhouse Partbooks Volume 3 (BHCD1004) and Missa Regnum mundi (Volume 2 BHCD 1003).
As fine as these recordings are they all have female voices in the top parts but here in the Missa Dominica we have boys, some fine mature treble voices of the famous Trinity Boy’s Choir with their long and distinguished history. This is, I believe, only the second recording of a Lady Mass - there is another Missa Dominica on the Pierre Verany label - and the first time boys have been recorded singing any Ludford, although its worth pointing out that Christchurch Cathedral Oxford including the boys have recorded masses by Thomas Ashwell, Hugh Aston and Richard Pygott. At various times all contemporaries of Ludford.
Swinson, in his fascinating notes, says that he has put the music together in a ‘loose liturgical context’ by that he means that the supporting pieces on this very well-filled disc – that is plainchants, sequences and carols, would not necessarily have formed a part of the original performance of such a Lady Mass but would have been known to the composer, or that the Sequences and Alleluias chosen are for a variety of other feast days. The Advent carols are especially pleasingly performed.
To give an example of how the antiphony works in a mass movement lets take the Credo. After the opening intonation the long text is divided into sections for three parts: two trebles and the tenor with organ, the tenor and organ and then the three vocal parts a capella. There are also sections for the trebles a capella in something almost akin to the old fauxbourdon style. Interestingly, the Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus are composed a capella throughout and they are in complete contrast to the rest of the mass being more in the typically highly melismatic style of the period and of Ludford in particular.
After the Credo there is a well thought out organ improvisation based on the Felix namque plainchant. It seems certain that composers like Redford, Blitheman and Tallis would have done similarly as composed examples of their work are to be found, for example even in the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book. But here Lewis Brito-Babapulle improvises in a more modern language. And after the Benedictus comes the setting of Candlemass by Graham Lack. This is a stark, wintry but very effective setting and fits in well as does the rather pointed setting of Psalm 23 for unison voices and organ by Kenneth Leighton the former work however has a wonderful extra soundworld because the CD, as can be seen above, has the fascinating extra colour of a team of hand bell ringers. There is a colour photo of the whole group but only six were used for the recording. Lack’s piece sets them against the organ and the treble voices including solo passages. Later the handbells also repeat the Beata Viscera that we first hear on the voices.
It could be argued that the performance of the polyphony is a little cautious and steady but the singing, especially of the boys is of the topmost quality. This would have been unfamiliar music to them, the early Tudor style likewise and it’s very impressive how David Swinson extracts from them a precise, clear and well-articulated sound with almost perfect intonation. The musicianship demonstrated is of the highest quality and the recording superbly focused. I also like the processional idea at the start and the recessional effect during the final Alma redmptoris Mater plainchant.
I wonder why this very wonderfully well-filled disc and very British choir had to be recorded in Germany on a German label? Nevertheless, when the time comes this will be one of my recordings of the year.
1. Processional : Gaude, Gaude, Gaude Maria
2. Square Le Roy (handbells)-
3. LUDFORD:Kyrie from the Missa Dominica
4. Square Le Roy (handbells)
7. ANON : There is no Rose of Swych Vertu
9. ANON: Angelus ad Virginem
14. Graham LACK (b.1954) Candlemas
15. Agnus dei
16. Kenneth LEIGHTON (1929-1988) The Lord is my Shepherd
17. Beata Viscera
18. Beata Viscera (handbells)
19. Alma Redemptoris Mater