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Tudor Masters: Taverner and Gibbons
John TAVERNER (1490-1545)
Kyrie (Le roy) [3:37]
Mass: The Western Wynde [28:22]
Dum transisset Sabbatum [7:43]
Christe Jesu pastor bone [3:08]
Mater Christi [7:20]
Orlando GIBBONS (1583-1625)
This is the Record of John [4:46]
Song 1: First Song of Moses [1:18]
Voluntary 1 – Te Deum (Second Service) [13:45]
Voluntary 2 – Jubilate (Second Service) [6:21]
Jacobean Consort of Viols (Gibbons)
Choir of King’s College, Cambridge/David Willcocks
rec. 1958 and 1961. ADD.
No texts included in booklet
ALTO ALC1183 [76:30]

These performances have been reissued before, with the Taverner items still available on a 2-CD Double Decca collection, coupled with Byrd’s Masses. Stocks of that twofer appear to be about to expire but the King’s Western Wynde Mass remains available, also with the Byrd Masses, on Newton Classics 8802020 (2 CDs). This is the Record of John is also available on several Decca anthologies of music from King’s.
Even at the time of release of the Taverner recording in 1962 doubts were expressed about David Willcocks’ direction, despite a warm welcome that the music of this great early Tudor composer was at last receiving a whole LP to itself – indeed, that’s all that there was on Argo ZRG5316. In particular the over-emphasis of the top line, in the manner of the English choral tradition, brings to the fore the cantus firmus of the secular tune on which the Western Wynde Mass is based when Taverner has gone to some pains partially to conceal it. The effect is somewhat akin to the over-enthusiastic keyboard continuo sometimes found on earlier recordings of baroque concertos, when the ideal is to be – just - aware of its presence. All too often on recent recordings it’s inaudible.
The opening Kyrie le roy is an isolated piece but it’s often employed, as here, to preface one of Taverner’s Masses which, as was customary, don’t include a setting of this text, usually sung to chant. The King’s recording sounds a little dogged but, surprisingly, the clock says that they are faster than The Tallis Scholars - see below. Alto don’t give separate timings for the sections of the Western Wynde Mass but this, too, is faster overall than from the Scholars. Again the singing is a little forthright but though there is that tendency to over-emphasise the tune I enjoyed the performance more than I expected.
The same is true of the shorter works, though I might have preferred the choir to caress the music a little more at the mention of the spices which the women were bringing to Jesus’ tomb – aromata is such an evocative word. Stile Antico take the music of Dum transisset sabbatum more slowly and lovingly on a very fine recent Harmonia Mundi recording: HMU80755: Passion and Resurrection: Recording of the Month – review and Download News 2013/4.
If you’re looking for a vintage performance of the wonderful music of this period from a Cambridge choir, I’d point you not to King’s but in the direction of George Guest’s recording with the next-door choir of St John’s on the EMI Eminence label. None of their Taverner is extant but Heritage HTGCD329 offers their recordings of Tallis and Weelkes. An inexpensive 50-CD set of the best EMI Eminence releases has just been issued, containing their recordings of the three Byrd Masses and Tallis’s Missa Salve intemerata Mater (7393972). If you come across a good second-hand copy of their recording of Taverner’s Western Wynde song and Mass and Tallis’s Salve intemerata Mater Mass (CD-EMX2155 or 7632902), snap it up.
The Gibbons recording was released in 1959 – surely that’s the year of release rather than of recording, as listed by Alto? Even then, as with the Taverner, there were serious reservations about a recording which nevertheless received a welcome overall. This time the complaint was of colourless solo singing in verse anthems which in their day would have been sung by the finest voices of the Chapel Royal.
Perhaps wisely, only the most famous of these, This is the Record of John, has found its way onto the CD reissue, the other contents having been included on an earlier Alto release of music by Byrd and Gibbons (ALC1182). I enjoyed hearing this performance, but I was more aware of the extent to which time has passed by King’s late-50s style of singing Gibbons than when I reviewed its reissue on Beulah 2BX20 – Download Roundup April 2011/1.
By coincidence the same recording of this anthem has again been reissued recently by Beulah on a download-only album available from iTunes and Amazon UK (Praise from King’s, 1PD70). I’ve recommended that collection in my 2013/7 Download News for its inclusion of the classic King’s recording of Haydn’s Nelson Mass; though admitting that the performances of the earlier music there (Tallis, Byrd, Gibbons and Bach) are fossils, I’ve described them as interesting fossils and the same holds true of its appearance here.
The recorded sound in Taverner is more than acceptable. For the Gibbons Beulah have ironed out much of the glassiness that used to be a feature of Argo LPs of recordings from King’s. In that they have been rather more successful than Alto, though I no longer fear that I’m about to hear the shattering of some of the college chapel’s stained glass as I used to be when listening to those LPs; even with a good Shure cartridge (latterly the ME95ED) the stylus seemed to have a life of its own. Comparison of the two versions of This is the Record of John reveals that Beulah have produced a fuller, more credible sound. Alto’s transcription of the Taverner is more credible still, with the merest hint of glassiness on loud top notes – a measure of the improvements that had been achieved in a couple of years in the early stereo era.
The Alto presentation leaves something to be desired. There are no texts, which is surely a must, especially with Latin settings, even at budget price. The budget-price Gimell and Hyperion recordings listed below offer texts at a price commensurate with Alto’s. In case you are searching the Bible in vain, the text of the First Song of Moses comes from George Wither’s Hymns and Songs of the Church, a metrical paraphrase of Exodus 15:
NOW shall the praises of the Lord be sung;
For he a most renowned Triumph won:
Both horse and men into the sea he flung.
And them together there hath overthrown.
The Lord is he whose strength doth make me strong
And he is my salvation and my song:
My God, for whom I will a house prepare
My father’s God whose praise I will declare.
There’s a howler of a typo in the documentation: a spurious i in Christe Jesu pastor bone - Christie Jesu – who he? Less seriously, I’m not sure that Gibbons qualifies as a ‘Tudor Master’, as he is described on the title page when the music by which he is remembered mostly dates from the Jacobean period.
The whirligig of time has brought much more easily recommendable recordings of Taverner’s music, often at prices competitive with this Alto reissue. The Western Wynde Mass is available on a Gimell 2-CD set for around £10 or less, with music by other early Tudor composers which I made Bargain of the Month (Tallis Scholars, CDGIM209 – review) and the full-price parent CD from which that performance is taken also contains the Kyrie le roy and Dum transisset sabbatum (CDGIM204). Hold on till Autumn 2013, however, and I understand that the Tallis Scholars have a new Gimell CD of Taverner in the offing: there’s an excerpt on their recent budget 2-CD Renaissance Radio: CDGIM212: Recording of the Month – review and Download News 2013/3.
For Christe Jesu pastor bone there’s a recording by the choir of Christ Church, Oxford, for whose predecessors the music was composed: Treasures of Christ Church, Avie AV2215 – Download Roundup January 2012/1; also included on A Tudor Christmas, Gift of Music CCLCDG1098) and one by Alamire and QuintEssential from the ‘other’ place (Henry’s Music, Obsidian OBSID-CD705 – Download Roundup August 2009.
Before it was adapted for Henry VIII and later Elizabeth I, this motet was originally a prayer to St William of York for Cardinal Wolsey, O Wilhelme pastor bone. In that form it’s performed by The Sixteen on a budget-price Hyperion Helios CD, CDH55055, also including Dum transisset sabbatum II and the Mass O Wilhelme. This CD is included in the wonderful bargain 10-CD set The Golden Age of Polyphony, which also contains Kyrie le roy, the Western Wynde and other Taverner masses (CDS44401/10 – review and Bargain of the Month review). The Sixteen prove that it’s possible to sing both settings of Dum transisset faster than Stile Antico (above) and even faster than King’s under Willcocks without making it sound rushed.
Mater Christi sanctissima is performed by New College Choir, Oxford, on a budget 2-CD Regis set (RRCD2091 – review), by Alamire (Taverner: Imperatrix Inferni, CD707 – review and Download Roundup January 2012/1) and by The Sixteen on another budget Hyperion Helios CD of Taverner’s music: CDH55053, also in the Golden Age set.
As with Taverner there are more recommendable recent recordings of the music of Orlando Gibbons, though none that combine exactly the works contained here:  
  • Hyperion Helios CDH55463: Advent at St Paul’s (budget price: contains This is the Record of John)
  • Naxos 8.553130: Oxford Camerata/David Summerly (budget price)
  • Hyperion CDA67858: Westminster Abbey Choir/James O’Donnell
  • ASV Gaudeamus CDGAU123: King’s College Choir/Philip Ledger (may not be easy to obtain in the UK)
Harmonia Mundi have also recently given us the chance to enjoy the music of Orlando Gibbons’ son Christopher (HMU807551: Recording of the Month – review).
I have enjoyed hearing these performances again but considerations of space mean that this CD will not be staying in my collection. One recording which will, however, of music from this period recorded by King’s and David Willcocks remains available at budget price: paired anthems by Byrd and his continental contemporaries, together with music by Gibbons and Weelkes: Classics for Pleasure 5860482. The performances sound rather too large-scale by comparison with more recent versions employing smaller forces – see my review of the music of Byrd on Harmonia Mundi Music for a Hidden Chapel (budget price, HCX3955182) – but the CD remains a better memento of the Willcocks era than the earlier ex-Argo recordings.
These were of great value in their day in furthering the cause of Tudor and Jacobean music, and if you particularly want an inexpensive introduction to Taverner and Gibbons together, the Alto recording is good value, but with inexpensive alternatives for each composer separately I’d look elsewhere. Don’t be tempted to download this recording – you may find yourself paying more than twice the price of the CD if you do and you’ll have no notes at all.
Brian Wilson