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Nicholas LUDFORD (c.1490-1557)
Ninefold Kyrie [4:45]
Alleluia. Ora pro nobis [3:31]
Hac clara die turma [6:13]
Ave Maria, ancilla Trinitatis [12:02]
Missa Videte miraculum [36:06]
The Choir of Westminster Abbey / James O’Donnell (organ)
rec. 2017, All Hallows, Gospel Oak, London; Chapel of St Mary Undercroft, Westminster, London
HYPERION CDA68192 [62:40]

Nicholas Ludford’s reputation has been greatly overshadowed by that of such contemporaries as Thomas Tallis and John Taverner, but this recording demonstrates that he was no less talented as a composer. It is surprising that he is not better known or been more extensively recorded – see Brian Wilson’s 2014 survey - as he wrote at least seventeen masses, more than are known by any other English composer of the time, and among these there survives, uniquely, a complete cycle of seven Lady Masses in three parts, that is, a mass for each day of the week in honour of the Virgin Mary. His surviving music was largely composed before the Reformation and represents one of the important components of the distinguished body of florid settings of the Latin liturgy that would shortly become redundant through Henry VIII’s religious reforms.

Ludford was employed at St. Stephen’s Chapel in what was then the royal palace of Westminster, so it is appropriate that the pieces are sung here by the present choir of the Abbey next door, with whose predecessors Ludford would likely have worked in any case. The disc was not recorded in their home venue but in All Hallows, Gospel Oak instead, which offers a sumptuously resonant and spacious acoustic in which the music unfolds, but without so much reverberation as to allow the texture to become blurred, which is crucial if the fluid rhythms of Ludford’s long melismas are to retain clarity, as they achieve here.

The recording re-creates some aspects of the liturgy used in devotion to the Virgin Mary. It begins with a typical ‘Ninefold’ Kyrie, which is to say that the Kyrie’s three component parts are each performed in some way three times. Some of those iterations are not polyphonic choral settings, but solo versets for the organ, based upon the appropriate plainsong for the Proper of the day. Amongst the smooth and rhythmically varied lines of Ludford’s choral sections, taken from his Tuesday Lady Mass (Feria iii) there are interspersed anonymous and modern versets, which are seamlessly integrated, despite being played by James O’Donnell on the organ at a different place and time. The brief versets composed by Christian Wilson and Magnus Williamson are stylistically consistent with the surrounding passages.

The succeeding Alleluia and Sequence ‘Hac clara die turma’ would also have been performed during such daily Marian worship, and are similarly scored in just three parts – STB and SAT respectively. The reduced number of voices for each part ensures a soft but mellow timbre for these settings, with supple rhythms, though the trebles soar aloft and stand out amongst the lower lines nonetheless. The bass intonation of some of the plainsong interjections is somewhat loose of tone by comparison, however.

The antiphon ‘Ave Maria, ancilla Trinitatis’, and the Missa Videte miraculum are more elaborate and intricate works, intended for worship on the occasion of a Marian feast, the Mass being set in six parts for example. The trebles address the Virgin in the antiphon with a graceful roundness of tone, but the yearning praises and imprecations offered to her by the lower parts with an almost wearied sighing make this seem like a sacred love song, which creates dramatic interest.

The performance of the Mass is more serene, as befits the fact that its music is more harmonically consonant and stable than that of Tallis, for instance, which frequently delights in the clashes that arise from the chromatic collisions of different parts. Hence, O’Donnell does not seek to impose overt drama where that would disrupt the music’s steady course, and so avoids any forceful characterisation of the ‘Crucifixus’ section of the Credo, instead drawing from the choir a mood of regretfulness and mourning.

Tension and direction are generated in his interpretation by the impressively sustained long lines of the melismas given to the vocal parts, which create the sonic parallel to the great arching vaults of a mighty cathedral or church. These spans may begin serenely, but cumulatively they build up to some quite ecstatic peaks. At the beginning of the Mass, the trebles are a touch strained as they reach up to the heavens, but thereafter they exude a sweet halo of sound circling over the lower parts which tend to move more slowly, as can be heard in the Credo’s ‘Et incarnatus est’ section, and the Sanctus. Assisting that impression is the soft enunciation of the Latin words, as in the almost cooing delivery of “tua” with a long ‘u’, in the Sanctus, echoing the same effect on the long “Alleluia” earlier on the disc.

If Ludford’s music is more subtle – or less adventurous, if put in the negative – than that of Tallis, these accounts make a moving case for it in practice, and one that is, in that respect, more idiomatically characterised than the recording of the Mass by The Cardinall’s Musick under Andrew Carwood. This is an important addition to the slender discography of this composer and, just as welcome, a readily available introduction to his output.

Curtis Rogers

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