Sheppard Missa Cantate Tallis Scholars Gimell CDGIM053

John Sheppard (c 1515-1558)
Missa Cantate
Laudem dicite
Jesu salvator sæculi, redemptis
Martyr Dei qui unicum
Gaude, gaude, gaude Maria
Beata nobis gaudia
Gaude virgo Christiphera

The Tallis Scholars/Peter Phillips
rec. Brinkburn Priory, Longframlington, Morpeth, UK, dates not provided
Latin texts and English, French & German translations included
Gimell CDGIM053 [76]

It’s been quite a while since we had a new recording from The Tallis Scholars; I think the last new CD was the final instalment in their survey of the Mass settings by Josquin des Prés, released in 2020 (review). I’m sure that the Covid lockdowns will have been a key factor in accounting for that hiatus. This new disc couldn’t be more timely, though.

Peter Phillips founded The Tallis Scholars in 1973 and this new CD is released to celebrate the group’s 50th anniversary season. Over the last five decades The Tallis Scholars have given over 2500 concerts. I’m not entirely sure if Phillips has conducted every single one, but if he’s missed any concerts, it can only be a tiny handful. That’s an amazing achievement. Just as amazing is the fact that though the membership of the group has evolved over the years, the musical standard has remained consistently at the highest level.

In his booklet essay, Peter Phillips tells us that the group’s first recording of music by John Sheppard was made in 1989. Though MusicWeb wasn’t then in existence to review it, the recordings were later recycled and you can read the 2008 review by my late colleague, Brian Wilson of a compilation album, ‘The Tallis Scholars Sing Tudor Music: Volume 2’, which included a whole disc of music by Sheppard, including the magnificent Media vita and the Western Wind Mass.

The centrepiece of this new programme is the Missa Cantate. The date of composition is unknown, but composers of church music in sixteenth-century England were obliged to cut their musical cloth according to changes in the religious and political climate. This leads Peter Phillips to infer that “the music on this album is so confident it seems likely everything recorded here is Marian”; in other words, during the short reign of Queen Mary I (1553-58) when England officially renounced Protestantism and for a few years re-embraced the Roman Catholic faith.

The Mass is on a grand scale. It’s laid out in six parts (Treble, Mean, Altos I & II, Tenor and Bass) and the music unfolds, in this performance, over very nearly 29 minutes – and that’s without a setting of the Kyrie, as was usual in Tudor times. The music is not based on a cantus firmus; rather, as Peter Phillips explains, a ‘head-motif’ – a simple polyphonic interaction between two voices – “permeates every movement”. This is a device, he says, which Sheppard used in the Missa Gloria tibi Trinitas, except that in this present Mass, the composer makes even greater use of the device. You can clearly discern the motif as you listen and it binds the structure together very successfully. Such a structural device would have been especially pertinent for the liturgical use intended by Sheppard, when the movements would not have been heard consecutively.

From the very start the Gloria is confident in tone. The Tallis Scholars perform the music with bright energy; they achieve great clarity in the polyphony and the overall impression is one of jubilation. Sheppard doesn’t really ease up with any passages of comparative introspection, such as one might expect, perhaps, at ‘Qui tollis peccata mundi’; instead, the music remains outgoing – and very stimulating. The conclusion of the Gloria (‘Cum Sancto Spiritu’) is particularly exciting; hereabouts there’s much fervour, both in the music and in the performance. The Credo is similarly confident in tone. Even amid this extrovert music, though, Sheppard manages to step up another gear at ‘Et resurrexit’, which he makes into a joyful proclamation. In this vivid performance the singers really bring the music to life. The Sanctus is especially memorable for the majestic setting of the ‘Hosanna’. The Benedictus is somewhat more reflective in mood, until the exultant ‘Hosanna’. Writing in another context. Peter Phillips used the term “gothic spaciousness” to describe Sheppard’s music. That phrase came to my mind several times as I listened to the Missa Cantate, not least during the Agnus Dei.

Sheppard’s Missa Cantate is deeply impressive and so is the performance it receives here. The singing of The Tallis Scholars mixes full-throated fervour with marvellous control. I refreshed my memory of their recording of the Western Wind Mass, made some thirty years ago. The approach there is very similar, but I fancy there’s even more thrilling urgency in this account of Missa Cantate.

Peter Phillips offers some fascinating companion pieces. There are five pieces written for the Divine Office. Laudem dicite is the Responsory sung at First Vespers of the Feast of All Saints. The setting is for five voices (AATBarB) and the decision to dispense with high voices imparts a richness to the scoring which I like. Jesu salvator sæculi, redemptis is also for the Feast of All Saints; this time, it’s a hymn in which verses are sung alternately to plainchant and polyphony. The scoring is interesting: there are parts for two Means, two Altos and one Bass (the bass singers are allocated the chant verses). Peter Phillips rightly draws attention in his notes to the “outrageously unorthodox piece of writing” in the Amen. I’m not surprised: Sheppard includes some astonishing dissonances; these really catch the ear. Martyr Dei qui unicum is another alternatim hymn, this time set for TrMAATB. Once again, the bass voices sing the chant verses. The Amen is more “conventional” on this occasion, in the sense that the music is consonant; nonetheless, the music is arresting. Beata nobis gaudia is the hymn sung at the Second Vespers of the Feast of Pentecost. The music is laid out in seven parts: TrMAATBB. The addition of a second bass line gives the scoring a very firm foundation and yet I found my ear was regularly led to the two upper parts – the treble line is unstintingly high-lying. It’s an alternatim setting and the chant verses are sung by the Mean voices, I think. Here, and in the other pieces where plainchant is involved, the fluency with which the chant is delivered is admirable. Gaude, gaude, gaude Maria stands a little apart from the other Divine Office pieces because Sheppard sets the Responsory and Prose for the Second Vespers of the Feast of the Purification; that makes it a much longer item. The music is laid out for the same six-part vocal forces as were deployed in Missa Cantate. The Prose passages are sung by the top two parts and the basses.

The programme ends with Gaude virgo Christiphera. This is a Votive Antiphon in honour of the Blessed Virgin. The music is laid out on a grand scale for TrMAATB but often Sheppard reduces his basic six-part scoring down to four parts. Peter Phillips suggests that this piece may have been written at some time after Missa Cantate. It’s a sumptuous piece, lasting for just over eleven minutes, during which time exultant polyphony pours forth in an unbroken stream. The Tallis Scholars sing it with terrific conviction throughout, but it seems to me that in the last of the six verses (‘Laus sit Patri et maiestas’) they summon up an extra degree of fervour. This glorious music, marvellously performed, is a tremendous conclusion to the programme.

On this CD we have a succession of magnificent examples of Tudor polyphony, superbly performed. The Missa Cantate is the major work but all the other pieces are on a similarly exalted level of invention and the quality of the performances is consistently high. The Tallis Scholars are on exciting form and the recording gives a thrilling immediacy to the voices. The recording was made by Philip Hobbs, who has engineered so many Tallis Scholars recordings over the years. On this occasion, they’ve moved from the venue that they’ve used for many recordings, the chapel of Merton College, Oxford; these sessions took place in a location which, I think, is new to Gimell. The recordings were made in the church at Brinkburn Priory in Northumberland. This, I understand, was an Augustinian Priory; the church dates from the twelfth century and was restored in the nineteenth century. Nowadays, the building is looked after by English Heritage. To judge by the results that we can hear on this disc, it’s a very suitable venue for this repertoire; the acoustic is sympathetic and the resulting recording is excellent. Incidentally, the disc is divided into no less than eighty separate tracks. This makes it very easy to follow the texts as one listens to this often-complex music

I note that Peter Phillips says of John Sheppard’s music that it is “still relatively under-recorded – there is still a long way to go with him”. I hope very much that there is an implication here that The Tallis Scholars might continue to explore Sheppard’s output on disc; that would be more than welcome.

It’s a major achievement on the part of Peter Phillips and his colleagues that they have made The Tallis Scholars a by-word for excellence in Tudor and European Renaissance polyphony over no less than fifty years. This new CD represents them at their very best and it’s a fine celebration of the ensemble’s first fifty years.

John Quinn

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