Notes and Editorial Reviews
Missa Regnum mundi.
Scott Metcalfe, cond; Blue Heron
BLUE HERON 1003 (79:39
Text and Translation)
This is the second in a series of releases by Blue Heron devoted to the so-called
. Those works were copied into the partbooks by the singer-scribe Thomas Bull, who joined the choir at Canterbury Cathedral in 1540.
(He was one of 12 vicars-choral there, the first of these being Thomas Tallis.) Presumably he was acting upon commission after Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries, leaving the reestablished cathedrals with a desire for polyphonic music; but whatever the cause, matters were to change drastically after Henry’s death. Tudor polyphony became associated in the minds of some with Roman Catholicism, and with wasteful, indecent spectacle. Much was lost to Puritan intolerance before equilibrium was restored, and the
were among its victims. Of the five books (treble, mean, contratenor, tenor, bass) that comprised it, the tenor has never subsequently been located, and paper leaves containing the start and conclusion of the treble are missing as well. What makes the matter all the more poignant is that so very little sacred music survives from England in this period, and that fully 39 of the 72 works that comprise the Peterhouse collection are unique to it. Roughly another dozen exist elsewhere only in incomplete versions.
So much is owed to musicologist Nick Sandon, who began with a dissertation on the
in 1983, and has been working ever since to reconstruct its contents. It’s his editions that are heard here: the
Missa Regnum mundi
required a tenor line and part of the treble, while both parts had to be re-created for the
. Did Ludford and Pygott compose exactly what’s heard on this release? Of course not, but leaving aside the anachronism of a 16th-century musical
, Sandon is both extremely knowledgeable and not working in a vacuum. This album and its predecessor (Ashton/Jones/Mason, Blue Heron 1002) are the beginning of an exciting series, more than hinting at the wealth of great sacred music written by English composers between roughly 1500 and 1540.
On to the music itself. Ludford will be best known to listeners through a fine series of releases that featured David Skinner, Andrew Carwood, and The Cardinall’s Musick on the late, lamented ASV subsidiary label Gaudeamus. (Presumably these are intended for rerelease, now that ASV’s back catalog is coming back into print.) There’s been precious little else by this otherwise little-known Renaissance master, though Edward Higginbottom and the Oxford New College Choir have out a fine album of his
and two votive antiphons,
Ave culus conceptio
Domine Jesu Christe
, on K617 617206. The
Missa Regnum mundi
is in any case unduplicated elsewhere. It is a
Mass, its four movements (the Kyrie traditionally wasn’t set by English composers at that time) beginning with a plainchant that could be heard during Ludford’s time on the feasts of one of two saints associated with the Sarum rites: Margaret and Winifred—which would dovetail nicely with St. Margaret’s Church, Westminster, the church of the composer’s parish where he was married, a churchwarden, and buried.
It is a rich work, the lyrical invention of its contrapuntal lines tempered by an awareness of dramatic possibilities in sudden harmonic shifts—academically prepared, but audibly theatrical in a way that makes the Italian polychoralists sound crude by comparison. The Sanctus in particular is a remarkable thing, the result of a startlingly expressive talent spinning a web of lengthy melismatic inventions with great textural variety. Blue Heron surrounds Ludford’s polyphonic four movements appropriately, with plainchants specific to a festal mass for St. Margaret.
is just as great a pleasure to hear. It is an extremely expansive example of the Marian antiphon; at 22:36, it’s one of the longest extent. Like that of Walter Lambe, and following upon a similar tradition, it intersperses three stanzas of verse tropes between the acclimations “O clemens,” “O pia,” and “O dulcis Maria, salve.” An earlier age might have seen such a lengthy text as a reason to forego melismatic passages, but Pygott takes obvious delight in them—sometimes as a solo, or as a duet, or trio, in strict canon or free counterpoint, as in the lines “Funde preces tuo nato/Crucifixo, vulnerato.” As with Josquin, so here: the flow of the music feels completely natural, freed rather than bowed by its freight of learning.
Listeners to 19th-century classical music will perceive an almost kindred spirit in the way Pygott deploys contrasting vocal colors in lengthy planes, increasing and decreasing intensity by varying pitch intervals, number and depth of voices, homophony, canons, melismatic passages, and syllabic expression. All of this and none of it will explain the beauty that Pygott invokes. Like the Ludford, it is in short a magnificent instance of the seeming paradox of Tudor choral music: the extraordinary wealth of musical technique put on display as a means to demonstrate a mystical insight that neither seeks nor finds an end to its depth.
Blue Heron’s three releases have all appeared on their own label. While it’s surprising the group hasn’t been snatched up by the likes of Hyperion or Chandos (Chaconne), the result has meant a consistency of presentation that merits top marks in all respects: engineering, liner notes—by the group’s director, Scott Metcalfe—and, of course, the performances themselves. Metcalfe is a well-known and appreciated name in early-music circles, both as a Baroque violinist and choral director: a founding member of The King’s Noyse and La Luna, director for 11 years of Convivum Musicum, and a regular participant in Debra Nagy’s Les Délices. My colleague J. F. Weber gave top marks to both of Blue Heron’s previous albums: “A remarkable disc” he called the Aston/Jones/Mason release, and referred to the group as “a leading new actor in the field of early music, both for studying sources and bringing them to life” in discussing their sampling of Dufay’s rich musical legacy (Blue Heron 1001). I can enthusiastically second these remarks where this third album is concerned. Blue Heron employs 12 members in the Ludford, and 13 in the Pygott. They blend beautifully, but the emphasis isn’t on a homogenous sound; instead, it’s on one that allows each voice part to be heard in its distinct contribution and with a fitting weight, given the shifting balance of musical thought. The texts are enunciated with great clarity, and a degree of emphasis that very subtly seconds moments of intensity.
Available from blueheronchoir.org, and highly recommended in all respects. This is definitely on my Want List for 2012.
FANFARE: Barry Brenesal
Works on This Recording
Missa "Regnum mundi" by Nicholas Ludford
Salve regina by Richard Pygott
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