Taverner & Tudor, vol II

J.F. Weber, Fanfare
Sunday, 31. May Fanfare

The first disc in this series (30:5) focused on John Taverner (c. 1490–1545), whose music occupied more than half the disc.. Again, he occupies almost half the disc, clearly the center of interest, but the review falls into Collections because of the number of additional composers. These are designed to provide a context for the greatness of Taverner by surrounding him with music of his contemporaries. This marvelous program of Tudor choral singing is not diminished by some necessary quibbles about the pieces selected. The notes describe the program as Taverner’s Mass surrounded by chant Propers for the appropriate feast of the Holy Trinity and works of composers of the generations before and after him. Yet the only chant Propers are the introit and gradual, nor is a troped Kyrie supplied. The rest of the program consists of a chant hymn as well as hymns and a canticle by the other composers, all of which belong to the Office, not the Mass. The Tallis hymn is the festal setting, which Hillier recorded earlier with his American group (19:6).

Taverner’s masses fall into three groups: the three festal masses, the first three that Harry Christophers recorded (8:4, CD in 11:4; 15:4; 13:4); three others that he recorded later (15:1; 16:3; 17:4); and two more, the Mean Mass and the Plainsong Mass, that neither he nor anyone else has recorded. Of the first group, this Missa Gloria tibi trinitas is the outstanding work and the one most recorded, here for the seventh time in nearly half a century. Stephen Darlington’s, the most recent version (31:1), was the occasion for a detailed survey, and the new version is the perfect foil to one that enjoys its own kind of excellence. Darlington’s rendition, the only one using a full choir of men and boys, was the slowest of all in every movement, yet its grand pace sustained the forward motion. As noted in that review, Peter Phillips likewise was the fastest in every movement, using a total of 15 singers. Now Hillier, using 16 singers, comes within seconds of his total timing, two movements being slower, two faster.

If I rank the new version of the Mass close to Darlington and Parrott, asterisks are needed to sort things out. Darlington presents Taverner without interruption, while Parrott distributes a full complement of liturgical chants through the Mass, and Hillier separates the Mass movements with a selection of chants and polyphony that is quite arbitrary. More important, Parrott’s strong insistence on the voice types that Taverner wrote for (as demonstrated in his own recording) is ignored in Hillier’s use of a standard modern SATB choir in a 3/4/5/4 complement that hardly corresponds to Taverner’s six-part writing (which calls for two tenor parts and two bass parts). Yet simply as a total musical program the disc demonstrates elegance and tonal beauty. Of the other works, the Fayrfax canticle was included on the final disc of Andrew Carwood’s survey of the composer (23:2), and the same two settings of the Compline hymn by Robert White were on Peter Phillips’s disc of the composer (18:6), just reissued in a boxed Tudor-music set.

So take this along with Hillier’s previous issue on its own terms. The notes are satisfactory and the presentation is elegant. I still like Darlington for the Mass.