What you have here is a well-performed sampling of music from England in the early 16th century. Because of the way the program is organized, the listener's mind may try to organize it into something more coherent than that, but it may not succeed. The centerpiece is the Western Wind Mass of John Taverner, which is broken up with secular pieces and then followed by music that might have been heard at the court of Henry VIII.
His own Lutheranism notwithstanding, Handel wrote some remarkable music for the Catholic liturgy while in Rome as a young man. In our era they've been performed in the concert hall–large-scale, multi-movement pieces such as the robust Dixit Dominus and the gracious Nisi Dominus in particular coming across as miniature oratorios. But they were, in fact, church music–as Andrew Parrott reminds us with this speculative reconstruction of a lavish 1707 Vespers service for which the young Handel provided music. The performance by Parrott and his Taverner groups is exhilarating. The Dixit Dominus in particular packs a real wallop. The contralto, tenor, and bass soloists do excellent work with their limited music, but Handel was obviously writing for star soprano castrati, and the real stars here are Parrott's three (female) soprano soloists. Jill Feldman wasn't in her best voice for this recording: her louder moments can sound a bit strained, but her softer singing is truly lovely and she rips through some forbidding coloratura. Emma Kirkby is, of course, a delight in Laudate pueri, and Emily van Evera sings superbly–her timing in the solemn opening and closing bars of the Salve Regina will have you on the edge of your seat. –Matthew Westphal
John Taverner (1490-1545) and William Byrd (1540-1623) born a generation apart, both hailed from Lincolnshire, and left a collection of choral works that rank (with that of Thomas Tallis) as some of the finest of its age, or indeed any other.
Both men worked in turbulent times – the older Taverner grew up during the reign of Henry VII, and became Informator Choristarum at Cardinal College, Oxford – Cardinal Wolsey’s new college in the university. Here Taverner recruited 16 boys and 12 men for the choir.
CORONA SPINEA is Taverner's longest Mass and a liturgical curiosity. Its plainsong cantus firmus (placed in the tenor) has never been identified, but the title implies that it was written for the feast of the Crown of Thorns, a rare event in England. As usual with Tudor festal Masses, the Kyrie is not set. The four remaining movements are of roughly equal length. Each consists of sections from two to four voices in various combinations, punctuated by passages for the full six-part choir. Taverner's choir at Cardinal College had sixteen boys and twelve men. The present choir of Christ Church Cathedral numbers sixteen boys and thirteen men. These performances, given by a choir of virtually identical size and composition to Taverner's own, and recorded in the building where he worked during the most fruitful part of his life, are therefore of unusual historical interest.