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John TAVERNER (c.1490-1545)
Gaude plurimum [16:55]
Le roy Kyrie [3:18]
Missa Gloria tibi Trinitas [42:45]
Ave Maria [2:50]
Audivi vocem [3:53]
Dum transisset Sabbatum I [6:31]
Pandora Dewan, Melissa Talbot, Elspeth Piggott, Patricia Drummond (sopranos)
The Choir of the Queen’s College, Oxford
Contrapunctus/Owen Rees
rec. 2018, St Michael and All Angels, Oxford
Texts and translations included.
SIGNUM SIGCD570 [76:16]

Owen Rees is Director of two choirs: the student singers who comprise the Choir of the Queen’s College, Oxford and the elite professional ensemble, Contrapunctus. The College choir has a membership of 30 singers while seven members of Contrapunctus are listed in the booklet. Since we so often hear Tudor polyphony sung by small ensembles such as The Tallis Scholars or The Sixteen – and rightly so – it might be wondered why Rees has elected to combine his choirs into a group of nearly 40 singers to perform these works by John Taverner. In fact, the decision is inspired - and it’s also wholly justified on historical grounds.

The historical grounds concern the composition of the two ecclesiastical choirs with which Taverner was most closely associated during his career. Owen Rees explains in his excellent booklet note that in the 1520s Taverner sang in the Collegiate church in the Lincolnshire town of Tattersall and then in 1526 he served, albeit for only about four years, as the inaugural master of the choristers of the chapel of Wolsey’s new Cardinal College, Oxford. Both of these churches were dedicated to the Holy Trinity and both boasted substantial choirs. If, as may well be the case, Taverner composed Missa Gloria tibi Trinitas for one or other of these foundations then it is likely that he conceived the Mass for choral forces of the size here assembled by Owen Rees.

On musical grounds the combination of the two choirs is fully justified too, because the Mass and most of the other compositions here recorded were scored for two bodies of singers: a large choir and a small consort of solo voices who sang contrasting passages. Here. the members of Contrapunctus serve as the solo consort and on some occasions, when the music dictates it, they are joined by one or two singers from the College choir. One point that I think it is worth emphasising straightaway is that the singing of the student singers is in no way inferior to that offered by the members of Contrapunctus. The members of that small group are all highly expert professional consort singers, such as soprano Amy Howarth, alto Rory McCleery and baritone Greg Skidmore, but the Queen’s College choir has clearly been trained to a high level of proficiency by Rees and their singing is excellent and thoroughly stylish.

Before the Mass we hear the Marian votive antiphon Gaude plurimum. This is an extraordinary construct, lavishly laid out for a consort, which sings in varying combinations of voices, and full choir. The contrast offered by Rees’s two choirs makes the present performance all the more compelling. It’s not until 3:54 that we hear the full choir (at ‘Gaude, sacratissima Virgo’). Up to that point the consort has laid out all the musical argument and so the entry of full choir at this point makes a telling impact. For the remainder of the piece, full-choir and consort passages alternate and I think the performance is thrilling.

In accordance with a practice that was fairly common among Tudor composers, Missa Gloria tibi Trinitas does not include a setting of the Kyrie. Here Owen Rees prefaces the mass with the ‘Le roy’ Kyrie, which may have been composed in honour of King Henry VIII. This Kyrie is in four parts and two of the Queen’s College sopranos join Contrapunctus to sing it.

As the timing of 42:45 suggests, Missa Gloria tibi Trinitas was conceived on an ambitious, spacious scale and the full-choir sections are scored in six parts. In his notes, Owen Rees rightly draws attention to the “kaleidoscopic variety of vocal combinations” in Taverner’s writing. His performance brings these out marvellously and the results are enthralling. In the Gloria, there’s a remarkable, extended consort section at ‘Qui tollis peccata mundi’. The intertwining polyphony is expertly negotiated by Contrapunctus and it’s not until ‘Qui sedes’ that the full choir is involved again. At the conclusion of the movement Taverner sets the word ‘Amen’ to a succession of rising scales and in this performance, those scales really take flight. The Credo contains a remarkable passage at the ‘Crucifixus’. The textures fall away and just three singers are left to carry on the musical argument. Amy Howarth of Contrapunctus and one of the Queen’s sopranos, Caroline Halls spin long, complex lines above a single bass voice (Giles Underwood, I presume). The effect is astonishing and the singers really deliver the goods. The full vocal forces are again deployed at ‘Et resurrexit’ and the sound is suitably majestic.

The Sanctus/Benedictus includes the extended consort passage (6:43-9:02) on the words ‘In nomine Domine’ which later became the source of many compositions by a variety of composers entitled ‘In nomine’. The first and third enunciations of ‘Agnus Dei’ are richly-textured affairs but the central ‘Agnus’ is for soloists’ consort. In this extended passage the music is more intimate and the vocal parts are elaborate, implying, as so often in this Mass setting, that Taverner must have had some fine consort singers at his disposal.

A trio of shorter works completes the programme. Ave Maria is a piece for Evening devotions and Owen Rees tells us that it was probably composed for Cardinal College. He goes on to say that Wolsey himself directed that an ‘Ave Maria’ was to be sung each evening at the College and that at three points in the singing of this anthem all were to genuflect while a bell was rung. Taverner duly incorporated pauses in his setting to accommodate this rubric and in the present performance we hear the bell toll, which adds a suitably atmospheric touch.

Audivi vocem is a responsory for Matins of the Feast of All Saints. This is a ‘solo responsory’ in which some passages are sung by a consort and others by the full choir. The magnificent Dum transisset Sabbatum is a responsory for the Matins of Easter Day and this differs from Audivi vocem in that all the music is choral – Rees says that Taverner seems to have been a pioneer of this form of responsory. The music conveys marvellously the joy of Easter, especially in the way the word ‘Alleluia’ is set.

This is a very fine album. The presentation of the music is clearly founded in detailed scholarship but in no way does this scholarship make the performances dry. On the contrary, Owen Rees and his singers bring Taverner’s wonderful music vividly to life in assured and skilled performances. The technical side of the project was in the highly experienced hands of producer Adrian Peacock and engineer David Hinitt. Between them they have vast experience of choral recordings and they present these performances in excellently clear, nicely atmospheric sound. The documentation is excellent.

John Quinn

Previous review: Brian Wilson

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