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Heavenly Songes
Nicholas LUDFORD (c.1490-1557)
Missa Sabato
Deo gracias Anglia [4:19]
Nicholas LUDFORD
Missa Sabato: Kyrie [5:20]
Missa Sabato: Gloria [7:25]
Alleluya [2:29]
Sequentia: Hodierne lux diei [5:25]
Glose sur ‘Edi beo thu hevene quene’ (instrumental) [5:51]
Nicholas LUDFORD
Missa Sabato: Credo [8:32]
Missa Sabato: Sanctus [6:20]
Missa Sabato: Agnus Dei [4:44]
Ite missa est [1:12]
Glose sur ‘There is no rose’ (instrumental) [6:30]
Abide I hope [2:35]
Christophe Deslignes (portative organ)
La Quintina/Jérémie Couleau (tenor)
rec. April 2019, Abbaye de Loc-Dieu. DDD.
First recording of Missa sabato.
Texts and translations included.
PARATY PTY220191 [60:45]

Regular readers may be aware that I consider Nicholas Ludford to be seriously under-rated. When I wrote my survey of his music in 2014, there was nothing generally available on disc, there was nothing generally available on disc, though there were the various downloads that featured in that survey, listed below as ‘See Survey’. There have been other recordings of his music in recent years, and I have welcomed several of these, including one directed by Jérémie Couleau (see foot of the review):

Now, with La Quintina, he turns his attention to Ludford’s Missa Sabato, a votive Lady Mass for the Virgin Mary, intended to be sung on Saturdays in the Lower Chapel of St Stephen’s Westminster, now St Mary’s Undercroft, the parliamentary chapel, where Ludford was verger and choirmaster in the late 1520s and 1530s, though it’s possible that much of the music was written before 1530. Unlike his festal works, this Mass is scored fairly modestly, for treble, mean (alto) and contratenor (tenor), with an added bass voice in the Sequentia (sequence). The three-part setting may be modest, but the music is often highly florid in the early sixteenth-century manner.

I asked Jérémie Couleau how they had managed to cope with the mean – tenor – bass requirement in the Sequentia; had they simply transposed the music, as we assume that Vivaldi did with his music for the girls of the Pietà? He replied that ‘we played the music in G (as in the manuscript) but we shared the chant between the four of us (sometimes an 8th higher...)’. The result is certainly a convincing way round the problem of needing a bass for just this one section.

A pdf score in modern notation is available online here and some sections are printed in the Paraty booklet in the older square notation. Let me say at once that I enjoyed the singing on this new recording more than that on the older album, which I thought too influenced by Marcel Pérès and his Ensemble Organum. (Actually, though the sound of La Quintina is notably lighter and brighter, sung at the correct pitch, instead of transposed down by the all-male ensemble on the older recording, listening again to that earlier version in better sound quality makes me think that I was too harsh in comparing Ensemble Scandicus with Ensemble Organum.)

So far Ludford’s ferial (weekday) Lady Masses have mostly been neglected on record, though four excerpts were included on Chorus vel Organa; that recording of ‘Music from the lost Palace of Westminster’ (see footnote) includes an AlleluiaSalve virgo (cycle VI),Kyrie (cycle III), Agnus Dei (cycle V) and Gloria (cycle II).

Ludford’s music is very much of its time, harking back to the great English composers of the fifteenth century rather than forward to the future. He died in 1557, towards the end of the brief reign of Mary I when Lady Masses were back in fashion. Had he lived into the reign of Elizabeth I, it’s interesting to speculate whether he would have been able to compromise with the new style, as Tallis and Byrd did, continuing to set Latin texts for occasions when they could be used, but adapting the polyphonic style to English words, and generally following the ‘one note per syllable’ rule.

The Hyperion recording listed below also includes weekday settings of Kyrie (cycle III) and Hoc clara die turma (cycle V). As I wrote in reviewing that recording – link below – if this is a fair sample of what ferial settings sounded like in the early sixteenth century, what a wealth of wonderful music we have lost, with just a few choirbooks saved from puritan destruction. If anything, the new recording from La Quintina makes an even stronger case for this ‘ordinary’ music, in this instance for the complete Saturday (Feria VI) Lady Mass setting.

We know a great deal more now about performing the music of this period than when David Munrow and his Early Music Consort made their ground-breaking recordings nearly sixty years ago, yet there still isn’t, and probably never will be, an agreed ‘right’ way to perform it. Had David Munrow recorded this Ludford Mass back then, he might well have added instrumental accompanimemnt, and the results would have been very entertaining. Even now, I find myself missing his panache when listening to more authentic accounts of Prætorius’ Terpsichore; the super-budget 2-CD Early Music Consort Renaissance Dance set remains my go-to for that and the other music there, by Susato, Morley and others (Warner Erato Veritas 3500032). But I also enjoy the many very fine recordings which Gothic Voices made for Hyperion, performed with no instrumental accompaniment or very little.

La Quintina employ just one voice to a part. We can’t know how this Mass would have been performed at the time. I suspect with rather more than one voice per part, but the minimal approach pays off really well, bringing clarity to the performance. That’s certainly preferable to overwhelming the music: like Johan van Veen, reviewing the Delphian Chorus vel Organa (above), I would have preferred a rather smaller ensemble even on that fine recording. Couleau and his small team achieve multum in parvo.

La Quintina also sound different from Caius College Choir on Delphian and different again from the Westminster Choir on Hyperion. O’Donnell’s singers are based geographically closer to the site of St Stephen’s Chapel – almost next door, though the recording was made in All Hallows, Gospel Oak – yet I suspect that La Quintina are stylistically closer to what Ludford would have heard. We can’t know, of course, but it may well be that he reserved his full forces, especially the trebles, for the big Sunday and festal celebrations. Not that there is any suggestion of needing to rest the soprano, Esther Labourdette, who takes the top line on the Paraty recording.

Westminster Abbey Choir give the Tuesday Kyrie the full works and, while the result is impressive, the organ in particular, recorded separately in St Mary Undercroft, sounds like a modern instrument trying to emulate the sound of an English renaissance organetto. Until recently it was believed that none of these small organs have survived, except in depictions, but the simple portative organ used on the new Paraty recording and pictured in the booklet sounds more like how we assume it sounded. To quote Couleau’s email to me again, ‘The organetto, quite high, takes part in the global atmosphere’.

The Delphian recording, however, goes one better, using a modern reproduction of a renaissance organ, parts of which were discovered in Suffolk. Both that and the instrument used on the new Paraty recording are much more apt than the organ of St Mary Undercroft on the Westminster Abbey recording. All three, however, are preferable to the handbells which for me spoil the Rondeau recording of Missa Dominica.

An unusual feature of Ludford’s Masses is the use of alternatim sections, referred to as ‘square’ passages. As the name implies, the music alternates between monophonic and polyphonic sections, the former designated for the tenor. That probably originates in the practice which still exists to the present time in churches with a choral tradition whereby the celebrant intones the opening words of, for example, Gloria in excelsis Deo in plainsong, and the choir enters at the words et in terra pax … What Ludford does is rather different: the tenor intones the opening words and the subsequent section et in terra pax … bonæ voluntatis is still set for the tenor, but marked as a ‘square’ section to be used as the basis for organ improvisation. Several sections in later parts of the Gloria are also marked as ‘square’ for a short organ improvisation before the next choral section; you can find these indicated on the online score mentioned above.

There are several ways of performing these sections: with the tenor simply singing what is laid out in the score, with the organ improvising a solo at these points, as in Couperin’s Organ Masses, or with a combination of both. La Quintina choose the third option; they also have the organ lightly underpinning much of the choral music, and that seems to me just right. O’Donnell on his recording of the Kyries for the Tuesday (Feria III) Lady Mass chooses to perform the square sections on the organ solo, as does Geoffrey Webber on Delphian, though, as already noted, the organ parts improvised on the latter, played by Magnus Williamson, sound much more in keeping than the St Mary Undercroft organ in the hands of O’Donnell, much as I continue to enjoy his Hyperion recording.

Sound arguments, with scholarly sources, are given in the Paraty booklet for this treatment of the square sections. If, as Johan van Veen wrote in reviewing the Delphian recording, the use of alternatim there was ground-breaking, the new recording even more ‘deserves the attention of every lover of renaissance polyphony’. I need not go into great detail on the subject; not only is it discussed convincingly in the Paraty booklet, which also indicates the editorial decisions made at various points, it’s also analysed in the booklet for the Hyperion recording, available free to all comers from

Ludford’s use of squares is not to be confused with an earlier practice, which continued in continental sacred music of this period, of another kind of alternatim, with one verse of a psalm or canticle sung in chant, the next in polyphony. It seems likely to me, though I have never seen it suggested, that Ludford’s use of this alternatim practice gave rise to the peculiarly English form of the Verse Anthem in which a solo voice or voices alternates with the full choir.

The insertion of two instrumental ‘glosses’, or improvisations, on Middle English poems in honour of the Virgin Mary is entirely appropriate in a Mass intended in her honour, just as the use of organ improvisation throughout the music seems to be in accord with the practice of the time. Edi beo þu heuene quene, ‘blessed art thou, Queen of Heaven’, dating from the thirteenth century, is one of the earliest Middle English lyrics for which we know the tune, in the form of a gymel, an early form of polyphony from which the record label of the Tallis Scholars, Gimell, is derived in a variant spelling. The more familiar Ther is no rose of swich vertu, often sung at Christmas, is rather later (fifteenth century). I wonder if anyone c.1530 would even have understood the Middle English of Edi beo þu, much less known the music, but it makes a good subject for one of two tasteful instrumental intermissions.

There’s one bizarre translation in the booklet: Gloria in excelsis Deo is rendered ‘Glory in the heights of god’ instead of ‘Glory to god in the highest’; the French translation gets it right. Otherwise, the English translations generally follow those currently used in English Roman Catholic and Anglican services.

It has taken a French ensemble to bring us nearer to an ideal recording of this music by a still underrated English Tudor composer. Overcoming national prejudices, they even begin their programme with the late fifteenth century jingoistic Agincourt Song, bragging how ‘our king went forth’ – and whacked the French. It’s good to know that a degree of entente cordiale still reigns, even after the turmoil of Brexit. Typically, we Anglophones can’t even get right the name of the place where the battle took place – it’s actually Azincourt. (Just to prove it, Word has rejected the correct name and underlined it in red.) By contrast, the Middle English texts are pronounced perfectly by these French performers, though, incidentally, the language is not ‘Ancient English’, as the booklet has it, translating l'anglais ancien.

I shall certainly want to revisit the recordings of the multi-part festal masses of Ludford listed below but if you wish to become acquainted with what the more modest three-part regular daily Masses at St Stephen’s sounded like at the time of the great flowering of pre-reformation church music, the Delphian and, above all, the new Paraty recordings require your attention. Considering that the project was crowd-funded, the subscribers named in the booklet deserve our thanks along with the performers.

At the time of writing this recording was available as a download only, with pdf booklet, or for streaming from Naxos Music Library, the CD release having been delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic, but it should be available by the time that you read this. Johan van Veen has also included a short review of this recording in Second Thoughts and Short Reviews Summer 2020, which will be online by the time that you read this.

Brian Wilson

- Missa Benedicta and votive antiphons – Choir of New College, Oxford/Edward Higginbottom K617 K617206 (download only) or Pan Classics PC10403 (CD). See Survey (link above).

- Missa Videte miraculum and Ave Maria, ancilla Trinitatis – Westminster Abbey Choir/James O’Donnell Hyperion CDA68192 Spring 2018/2 (CD and download).

- Missa Lapidaverunt Stephanum; Ave Maria, ancilla Trinitatis – Cardinall’s Musick/Andrew Carwood Presto special Gaudeaumus CD CDGAU140. Other ground-breaking Ludford recordings by this group are begging to be released.

- Missa Regnum mundi with Pygot Salve Regna – Blue Heron BHCD1003 See Survey (link above). (CD and download).

- Missa Inclina cor meum Deus with Mason Ave fuit prima salus – Blue Heron BHCD1004 See Survey (link above). (CD and download).

- Missa Dominica – Trinity Boys Choir, Handbell Choir Gotha/David Swinson RONDEAU-HORIZON ROP8001: Recording of the Month – review . (CD and download). Despite my colleague's accolade, the handbells spoil this for me.

- Ave cuius conceptio – Oxford Girls’ Choir in Heavenly Voices CCLCDG1181. Download only. See Survey (link above). (Download only).

- Chorus vel Organa: Music from the lost Palace of Westminster - Choir of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge Delphian DCD34158 (CD and download – review Autumn 2016) .

Jérémie Couleau has previously recorded Ludford’s Sunday Lady Mass,Missa Dominica, with Ensemble Scandicus on Arion/Pierre Verany PV713111 - see Survey (Link above). That’s available from Amazon UK and Amazon US on a rather expensive CD and as a download or for streaming elsewhere.

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