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John SHEPPARD (c. 1515-1558) Media vita in morte sumus
rec. 2012, Fitzalan Chapel, Arundel Castle, Arundel. INVENTA RECORDS INV1003 [16:28]
This recording has reached me as a ‘CD single’ of the kind we used to associate more with pop music back in the good old days. The booklet notes are to be found online, and the recording can be had for a very reasonable price as a download via the Resonus Classics site. As these notes tell us, this recording has been ‘in the can’ since 2012 as part of a project linked to David Starkey’s BBC series Music and Monarchy, and while David Skinner freely admits that there are numerous very fine recordings of this work available, he “felt we might have something new to say in terms of pitch and pacing; Alamire tends to lean towards those darker sonorities, allowing the tenors especially to sing within the sweetest spots of their register. I had also found the length and scale of Media vita curious in terms of maintaining balance and interest in modern performance. Something always seemed amiss with the structure… Professor John Harper and Jason Smart meticulously re-examined the liturgical sources of Media vita and it does indeed turn out that the work has long been misunderstood and we are now able to offer a new take on one of the greatest masterworks from Tudor England…”
The notes go into some detail about the liturgical form that this version has taken, based on contemporary sources and now appearing in a form that Sheppard would hopefully have recognised. For the review I will restrict myself to a few comparisons, but in short this is a stunning version of a piece of Renaissance choral music that everyone should hear.
This is now a little like comparing chalk and cheese given the differences between versions, but the main reference for many years has been the Tallis Scholars on CDGIM016 and also available on their compilation ‘The Essential Tallis Scholars’ (review) in a version that comes in at 21:33, a fairly typical timing for performances in the current catalogues. The Tallis Scholars’ sound is indeed higher and lighter than that of Alamire, which gives the music greater heft and impact and, excellent as the Tallis Scholars are, I prefer Alamire. A little closer in sonority to Alamire but with fewer voices and a more chamber-music acoustic is Contrapunctus on the Signum Classics label (review). This version is again very good, but doesn’t have the sweep and grandeur of Alimare, so again the laurels go to them. For atmosphere and mystery I have much admiration for Stile Antico’s all-Sheppard collection on Harmonia Mundi HMU807509DI, but by comparison with Alamire their sound now seems a little too generalised and distant, and the tempi just a bit too pedestrian. With Alamire just listen to the way the Antiphona: Media vita in morte sumus opens out from almost nothing into something that is as overwhelming in its beauty today as it must have been in Tudor times, and certainly the equal of anything by Tallis. The recording gives all of the voices plenty of presence, allowing for clarity while managing to hold onto that essential balance between singers and the acoustic space. All of this brings a tear to this reviewer’s eye, and anything that can have that effect deserves investing in - and as a download at less than the price of half a pint down the pub if EUR/GBP conversion rates stay roughly the same.