This is a very nice disc: beautifully sung; a well-balanced recording
in both stereo and a warmly inclusive surround sound, and with a rich
selection of John Sheppard’s superb music. What on earth could
there be to complain about? Well, nothing, but in fact there are a
number of aspects of this release of which your kindly reviewer feels
the need to make you aware. After that, it’s up to you.
Styles of choral singing differ, and long may this remain. The comparisons
I’ve tended to admire most in this music have been of the purer,
reduced-vibrato angelic type best represented in Hyperion’s
collection with The Sixteen directed by Harry Christophers. This is
all a matter of taste, and I can easily become used to the St John’s
College sound in these works, though with plenty of vibrato in the
singing the word ‘fruity’ constantly springs to mind.
Gems such as the final Libera nos, salve nos gain a kind of
magical aura on Hyperion CDA66259, and while this St John’s
performance is very good I don’t feel the same overwhelming
presence of something other-worldly. I’m not anti-vibrato as
such, but these works have such a refinement of counterpoint and polyphony
that I find it hard to come to terms with a technical approach which
clouds such marvels. Seek out and compare Stile Antico from Harmonia
Mundi or the Tallis Scholars on the Gimell label and I hope you’ll
be able to hear what I mean.
As I say, this is all a matter of personal taste. Perhaps it is the
larger number of singers at St John’s which is bothering me,
but that question of vibrato keeps popping up. The Sixteen also indeed
uses vibrato, but their mixture of expression and clarity wins every
time for me. Looking at the ‘Western Wynde’ Mass,
Andrew Nethsingha is relatively brisk in the Gloria and Credo,
creating lively contrast with the deeper worlds of the Sanctus
and Agnus Dei. These are all performed with a keen sense of
commitment, but I miss a feel of real quiet or repose where the mood
is required. The substantial opening Gaude, gaude, gaude Maria
is also given plenty of passion, but this throws up another aspect
of the interpretation which bothers me. There is a tendency here to
swoop a little too much between notes, and I know we’re after
nice legato lines but other ensembles have shown how this can be achieved
with a less lazy switch between intervals larger than a second. If
you add all this up in all voices you find another cause for lesser
polyphonic clarity throughout.
This is a very fine programme, and if you like the general choral
sound then there are good musical experiences to be had. Simpler works
such as the four-part In pace, in idipsum dormiam create nice
moods, but there was no point in this album that my world stopped
turning and I was left speechless with the wonder of it all - and
I know this can all too easily happen to me with John Sheppard’s
music. I was hoping for more and perhaps wishing for too much when
seeking out this release, but if I was still working in the record
shop it would be Hyperion’s The Sixteen which I would be pressing
into your hand, confident that your musical and spiritual senses will
be heightened and transformed.
And another review ...
Here's an enjoyable CD of the choral music of English early Renaissance
composer John Sheppard. We don't know much about him; not even when
he was Master of the Music at Magdalen, Oxford, and immediately afterwards
a member of the Chapel Royal. We have next to nothing about his earlier
We can be sure, though, that Sheppard was living and writing during
the upheavals of the Reformation. He cannot but have been affected
by the enormous changes in religious, and hence musical, practice
and traditions of the 1540s and 1550s.
In common with such contemporaries as Carver, Mundy, Tye and Tallis,
Sheppard nevertheless composed music of great translucency. It has
an almost serene quality, though the performances on this CD don't
stint from exposing tinges of - if not roughness - then of gentle
'reality' in the musical whole. Passages in the Gaude [tr.1], for
instance, are clearly many-layered and sung in such a way as to convey
writing for individual parts and lines. This, rather than the more
monolithic wall of sound we are used to in the masses of, say, Sheppard's
near contemporaries, Palestrina and Victoria.
This is more evident in the next and third longest - after the Gaude
only the Spiritus Sanctus lasts more than five minutes- work here:
the In Pace [tr.2]. As the CD proceeds, the singing on work after
work is - happily - heard to emphasise expressiveness, emotion, projection
of the substance, rather than the flavour, of the texts.
Indeed, these performances have clearly been prepared - and are admirably
performed - to reflect the transition from the purely Latin and somewhat
Latinate world of pre-Reformation Britain to the new Anglican one.
The immediacy of the vernacular one knows in Morley and Weelkes is
still a generation away. The Choir of St John's and Andrew Nethsingha
capture the moment of that transition admirably: listen to the exuberance
of the Mass' Sanctus [tr.8], for instance.
At times, perhaps, the flow of the words in Nethsingha 's hands is
a little too … sinewy. The final "Amen" of Our Father [tr.3]
is drawn out for just too long; it suggests the legacy of Victorian
hymn singing over the purity of Renaissance self-confidence. At times
you get the impression that the singers are engaged on pressing a
cause, projecting the immediacy of this wonderful music, rather than
letting it emerge. The slightly clipped pace of In manus tuas [tr.4]
and the melismata in the Mass's Gloria [tr.5] are other examples.
The singing becomes very … 'personal'. Geoffrey Clapham's bass
chanting of Haec Dies [tr.6] gains much of its impact and immediacy
from a slightly pinched articulation more in the fashion of Ensemble
Organum, than of an English choir.
The acoustic of St John's Chapel, Cambridge is resonant; at times
almost distancing from the music's unmistakable centre of gravity
though not a syllable is lost. The balance between soloists and choir
is a good one: they're clearly all working in the service of the music.
This is all to the good given the times when what amounts to self-consciousness
has crept in. The booklet sets the scene for understanding Sheppard,
describes each piece, and contains the texts in full in Latin and
With the exception of Christ Rising Again, all of the works here presented
are available on equally good recordings elsewhere. That shouldn't
dissuade you from taking a good look at this release on Chaconne.
You'll need to take into consideration that what we hear at times
almost suggests that Nethsingha and his choir are trying to prove
something about the music, instead of revealing its undoubted beauty