The lion’s share of this release is taken up with one of the great glories of Tudor church music by a composer who represents the final flowering of late-medieval English polyphony. Much has been written about the brief tenure as first Choirmaster to Oxford’s Cardinal College, now Christ Church, of John Taverner (c.1490-1545) but there is no certainty that Missa Gloria tibi trinitas was conceived for his new charges despite a link between its cantus firmus ‘Gloria tibi trinitas’ (one of the antiphons for Trinity Sunday) and the College’s dedication to the Trinity. More certain, argues Owen Rees in his booklet note (which includes texts and translations), is the similarity in forces between the forty or so members of the Tudor Chapel Royal (who might have sung the work first) and the combined voices of Contrapunctus and the Choir of The Queen’s College.
What is unquestionable is the glorious sound, vividly bringing to life a work whose recorded legacy goes back to the mid-1980s. Following The Tallis Scholars’ ground-breaking account, raising the key by a tone, subsequent recordings have continued to provoke questions of pitch. Rees retains the printed pitch (Volume Twenty of Early English Church Music) with no loss of impact, and his undergraduates are more persuasive than the effortful sound (also at pitch) from the Choir of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford.
Particularly impressive is the integration of a warmly blended Queen’s College tone with the brightly focused voices of Contrapunctus. The students sound every bit as accomplished as their professional counterparts and the sopranos are having the time of their lives in the rousing final sections of the ‘Gloria’ and the ‘Credo’ where Taverner’s contrapuntal skill is at its most thrilling.
Rees has a natural affinity for this music, whether underlining differences of mood, allowing phrases to bloom or deftly judging cadential arrivals, his touch is instinctive. Taverner’s balance between restraint and vigour, intimacy and invigoration, is mirrored by Rees and his forces who respond in kind, fully entering into the spirit of this sublime music.
As in other recordings, musicianship and pure intonation come as standard, as do clarity and precision, but what makes the difference here is the contrasts of choral weight and consequent drama. Any disappointment arising from one slightly jarring voice is soon erased for the intensity with which Taverner’s long-breathed lines are rendered. There is an unerring rightness about this performance as if the spirit of the composer was hovering near the microphones.
There’s no shortage of attractive music as fill-ups, such as the dramatic Gaude plurimum and the smoothly rendered solemnity of the Ave Maria complete with the inclusion of church bell as originally specified by Cardinal Wolsey.