Notes and Editorial Reviews
Ave fuit prima salus.
Missa Inclina cor meum
Scott Metcalfe, cond; Blue Heron
BLUE HERON 1004 (59:58
Text and Translation)
Philip Heseltine (better known his compositional pseudonym of Peter Warlock) once lamented that all the music of England’s Golden Age that still existed had been found, and that there was
no more to uncover, or transcribe. But this was towards the end of his short life, while in deep depression. In the more than 80 years that have passed since that time, much additional music has been brought to light. Some of it, too, that was previously damaged to the point where performance was thought impossible, has been painstakingly reconstructed.
This is the case with a subset of the Peterhouse partbooks compiled in a relatively short time, probably in the early 1540s, following Henry VIII’s famous Dissolution of the Monasteries. The king’s death in 1547 led to a series of rulers and policies that set the nation careening across the religious spectrum, with various levels of tolerance towards such delights as sacred choral music. At some point, whether through neglect or deliberate sabotage, the tenor book vanished, and was never recovered. Portions of the treble book also went missing. What made this particular loss severe is that of the 72 pieces included in the Henrician group of partbooks, 39 are
, while another 12 exist elsewhere only in incomplete versions.
The reconstruction of individual pieces has become the lifework of musicologist Nick Sandon. It’s his editions we hear on this album, with a new version of the missing tenor part in the Mass, and both treble and tenor in the antiphon. These are world premieres of both works in two respects, then—not only first recordings, but also part of a series of first performances since the mid-17th century, at the latest.
John Mason is by far the least-known of the composers on this release, and the only reason we know his music at all is because of four works in these partbooks. The
Ave fuit prima salus
isn’t based on a
. Its interest lies in the brilliant yet subtle variations the composer works on each of his 17 verses that conclude with “Ave Maria.” Mason is a past master at varying textures through the number and color of active parts, but the emphasis tends for the most part towards the contemplative side of the emotional scale, as is appropriate. Sandon is quoted in the liner notes as finding the text “as undistinguished as literature as it is pedestrian in theology,” but it is all turned to gold by the composer.
Missa Inclina cor meum
is the second of two by Ludford that come down to us solely from the Peterhouse partbooks. (The other,
Missa Regnum mundi
, was recorded on Blue Heron 1003, and reviewed in
36:1.) As its cantus firmus is not associated with any specific feast day, Metcalfe has chosen not to include plainchant Propers. The custom of the day in England was to omit writing a through-composed Kyrie, and replace it with a plainsong-based textual trope—which is exactly what we get here with
, instead of leaving a mass minus a movement as many recordings do: well done. Metcalfe points in particular to a passage in the Sanctus where the basses greatly augment the melody as the top voices “spin out melodies high above” as an example of “truly strange passages,” but in its entirety this mass is a boldly imaginative work of great melodic beauty and harmonic sensitivity.
What continues to set apart these recordings of Blue Heron from the majority of choirs recording similar repertoire is the use of expressive devices. To beauty of phrasing, and the careful blending of parts, Scott Metcalfe adds clarity of enunciation, flexible tempos, and both a general and part-related control of dynamics that never approaches stylistic anachronism. As a result, the music doesn’t float in a vacuum, but becomes the carrier when appropriate for an emotional current. When it is sung that with Mary “angels rejoice and archangels exult,” for example, the performance reasonably seconds the music, and the score blazes with the brightness of that eternal moment. There are many more instances of that, all to the good.
The sound is close and resonant, but absolutely clear, with none of the messy lack of focus that comes from cloudy, over-reverberant efforts. The quality of this series remains as high as ever, both for music and performance. Available from blueheronchoir.org and, needless to add, strongly recommended.
FANFARE: Barry Brenesal
Works on This Recording
Ave fuit prima salus by John Mason
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