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Taverner: Mass 'the Western Wynde' / Christophers, Sixteen

Release Date: 06/13/2000 
Label:  Helios   Catalog #: 55056   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  John Taverner
Conductor:  Harry Christophers
Orchestra/Ensemble:  The Sixteen
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 0 Hours 56 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

This review is what is known theologically as a work of supererogation, since the recording was reviewed long ago on Musicweb. My excuse is that I have noticed that we have been displaying the wrong cover shot on the website – the equally fine but completely separate version by the same forces of Taverner’s Missa Sancti Wilhelmi (Editor - this will be corrected). My second excuse is that it is some time since the original review appeared and, whilst I agree entirely with Gerald Fenech’s original review (he awarded the maximum ***** for performance and recording) a reminder now of the excellence of the whole series of Taverner recordings which the Sixteen under Harry Christophers made would not come amiss. My third reason is that it gives me Read more an opportunity to look at current rival versions – a brief look, only, since I cannot think of any reason why anyone would dislike this Hyperion version.

Each of these Hyperion recordings centres on a setting of the Mass. The principal item on this disc is the Mass Western Wynde in which Taverner effectively varies a popular secular tune, one which later attracted other composers, including Tye and Sheppard, possibly in emulation of their older contemporary. In the song the lover yearns for the return of the western wind and the mild rain which herald the beginning of Spring; like the birds in the springtime Prologue to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, his thoughts turn to love. (I should add that John Heighway’s excellent notes cast doubt on whether this song “Westron wynde when wyll thow blow” in a British Library manuscript was Taverner’s original.)

At first sight a song in which the lover wishes that his beloved were in his arms, “and I in my bed again”, seems inappropriate as the basis of liturgical music, but the practice of basing polyphonic Masses and motets on secular tunes was common on the continent, though this may well have been the first English example. The popular tune L’homme armé – the armed man who terrorises everyone – formed the basis of Masses by several late-medieval composers, the most famous of them being by Dufay, as did Se la face ay pale, employed in another Dufay Mass. In the Western Wynde Mass, the underlying tune is unusually prominent from the very start of the Gloria.

Scores of the Gloria, Credo and Agnus Dei of the Western Wynde Mass are available online as pdf files. Don’t be confused by the fact that the opening words, “Gloria in excelsis Deo”, Glory be to God on high, and “Credo in unum Deum”, I believe in one God, are omitted from the score, since these were intoned in plainchant according to the normal practice.

All Taverner’s music was probably composed before 1528 when, along with several students at Cardinal College, Oxford (later Christ Church) he was charged with being infected with Lutheranism. Several of those accused were imprisoned in a cellar which contained putrid fish, some of them actually dying because of the “noisome smell”. Taverner got off lightly because he was a ‘mere’ musician – “unlearned and not to be regarded” was the official verdict. Later Tallis and Byrd (and possibly Dowland) found themselves in the opposite position, fairly open recusants in Elizabethan England, and apparently tolerated because musicians were not important. After the 1528 episode Taverner “repented him much that he had written songs to Popish Ditties” and, according to one possibly apocryphal story, when the tide had swung in the reformers’ favour, became a government agent to hunt down Papists and abetted Cromwell in the dissolution of the monasteries.

Since GF’s review a challenger in the same, lowest price category has appeared – and, apparently, fairly promptly been deleted – in the form of a Classics for Pleasure reissue of a recording by St John’s College Choir, Cambridge, under George Guest. (CDCFP4654, a reissue of a 1989 EMI Eminence recording, coupled with a fine performance of Tallis’s Missa Salve Intemerata Virgo). CFP recordings have a habit of popping in and out of the catalogue, so it is conceivable that this will return in the near future.

The chief virtue of Guest’s performance is that he offers the original secular song first, to help the listener pick out where it occurs in the Mass setting. Otherwise, this is a well-sung performance, decently recorded. If the tone is a little raw, that makes the St John’s choristers sound rather less ‘English’ and rather more ‘continental’. We cannot, of course, know what Taverner’s original Oxford choristers sounded like. Guest’s timings are consistently rather slower than those of Christophers; whilst Guest never sounds unduly sluggish, I do find that the music benefits from Christophers’ brisker approach.

The Hyperion recording is also rather more sharply focused than the CFP, at least on my copy of the original EMI issue of this CD; both are all-digital. The acoustic and recording on the Hyperion recording never intrude on one’s enjoyment of the music, though I should have liked to know where the recording was made. Otherwise the booklet is in no way inferior to the original full-price version; presumably that did not specify the venue either, since my full-price version of Taverner’s Missa O Michael is also silent on this point. I assume that the venue was, in fact, St Jude’s Hampstead, as per the sister recording of Taverner’s Missa Corona Spinea.

Another budget-price challenger comes from Brilliant Classics in the form of a 5-CD set of Renaissance music performed by New College Choir, Oxford, under Edward Higginbottom. (Brilliant Classics 92433, 5 CDs for around £17 in the UK.) I have not heard their recording of the Western Wynde Mass but I have heard and liked several of their other Tudor recordings – and they are, after all, the successors to a tradition even older than that of Taverner’s own Cardinal College Choir, which has recorded his music in its modern guise as Christ Church. (For Christ Church Choir in Taverner, watch out for my enthusiastic review, due to appear shortly, of Nimbus NI5360 Ave Dei Patris Filia – no overlap with this Hyperion CD.)

If you want three masses based on the Western Wynde theme and don’t mind running to full price, you could go for CDGIM027, where Peter Phillips and the Tallis Scholars perform the Taverner setting as well as later examples by Tye and Sheppard – a well-filled CD with excellent performances and recording. The Tallis Scholars’ version of Taverner’s Missa Gloria Tibi Trinitas (CDGIM004) has long been a treasured part of my CD collection. To the contents of this CD, which I bought in its original format, the Western Wynde Mass has now been added, whilst retaining the original catalogue number. The Tallis Scholars’ version of this work is, thus, available on two CDs with different couplings. (Sorry if that sounds confusing).

One clear advantage of the New College and St John’s recordings is the employment of boys’ voices, whereas The Sixteen has female trebles and means. I can only say that I never felt that the female voices on the Christophers version jarred and, of course, there is the clear advantage of the greater assurance of adult singers. The low scoring of the Te Deum on this CD suggests that it may have been composed for an adult choir without boy trebles, making it particularly suitable for The Sixteen.

If you go for the Brilliant Box or the Tallis Scholars’ recording, you will be missing some excellent music on this Helios CD. The Alleluia may be small beer but O splendor gloriæ and the Te Deum are no mere makeweights; rather they are fine works in their own right, especially when they are well sung as they are here.

O splendor gloriæ is a votive antiphon, probably designed to be sung after Compline, whence arose the Anglican custom of the anthem (a corruption of the word ‘antiphon’) at the end of Evensong. The budding reformer in Taverner would have welcomed the fact that this antiphon celebrates Jesus rather than Mary, a trend which was developing in England even before the break with Rome. The notes rightly claim this as in many ways the finest of Taverner’s larger antiphons. For the modern listener it evokes an image of robed choristers in a glorious gothic cathedral. If it is less ‘exciting’, less soaring than much late-medieval and Renaissance polyphony, that is appropriate to the mood of the end of Compline, where it would follow the Versicle and Response “We will lay us down in peace and take our rest. For it is thou, Lord, only that makest us dwell in safety.”

The Te Deum is also a fine piece, with alternate verses chanted and sung in polyphony. The only surviving copy of this music dates from 1581, shorn of its tenor part, which has been restored for this recording. The notes suggest that it may date from after Taverner’s time at Oxford, though it cannot be much later if the story that Taverner abandoned “Popish ditties” is true. On the other hand, the Te Deum as a hymn of praise to Christ, without any Marian devotion, may have been particularly palatable to the reformed Taverner.

Alleluia, Veni electa mea is a Marian antiphon, an extension of the Alleluia in Masses of the Virgin Mary, or Lady Masses, as they were known, celebrated daily at Cardinal College. Its brevity does not preclude excellent singing from The Sixteen.

The Western Wynde Mass is placed last on the CD, which is appropriate. Though noticeably faster than the St John’s recording, The Sixteen never hurry the music: if anything, the impression is that they allow it more time to breathe whilst keeping up a sense of forward momentum. Each section is presented as if it were the unwinding of some great clockwork mechanism. I can easily live with the St John’s version when I take it out for the sake of the Tallis coupling, but The Sixteen give the music just that little extra that fully justifies GF’s original five-star rating. Even if you already have another version, you need this too.

-- Brian Wilson, MusicWeb International
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Works on This Recording

O splendor gloriae by John Taverner
Conductor:  Harry Christophers
Orchestra/Ensemble:  The Sixteen
Period: Renaissance 
Written: 16th Century; England 
Te Deum laudamus by John Taverner
Conductor:  Harry Christophers
Orchestra/Ensemble:  The Sixteen
Period: Renaissance 
Written: 16th Century; England 
Alleluia, Veni electa mea by John Taverner
Conductor:  Harry Christophers
Orchestra/Ensemble:  The Sixteen
Period: Renaissance 
Written: 16th Century; England 
Missa "Western Wynde" by John Taverner
Conductor:  Harry Christophers
Orchestra/Ensemble:  The Sixteen
Period: Renaissance 
Written: 16th Century; England 

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