Taverner: Western Wynde Mass, Missa Mater Christi sanctissima

Taverner: Western Wynde Mass, Missa Mater Christi sanctissima
The Choir of Westminster Abbey, James O’Donnell
Hyperion CDA68147. 58’36

Jeremy Summerly’s comprehensive programme note opens with the suggestions that “Early Tudor England was insular and the attitude of its people xenophobic”, quoting an Italian visitor in 1497 that “they have a antipathy to foreigners”, an unfortunate habit that sadly still seems to be the case, at least for around 52% of the population. John Taverner was very clearly an exception to this view, at least musically, for he relished the music coming from the continent. This CD indicates two particular influences, with the complex polyphony and imitative writing of the likes of Josquin featuring in the Missa Mater Christi sanctissima and, in the Western Wynde Mass, as Summerly puts it “a Lutheran dexterity in his use of a secular model for a piece of sacred music”.

Despite the order of pieces in the title of this CD, it is the Missa Mater Christi sanctissima that comes first, preceded by the motet upon which it is based. This is very different from the professional singing groups (with female sopranos) that dominate the recording market. Here we have the sizeable all male choir of Westminster Abbey, albeit not recorded in that vast acoustic but in the much smaller, but similarly vibrant acoustic of St Alban’s, Holborn. The first thing you notice is the comparative distance of the singers, giving a reasonably accurate impression of how you might hear this music live in the Abbey. And, after a while, you realise that the distance has the entirely practical purpose of allowing the acoustic to absorb the immense power of the singing of the 20 boys and 12 men. Of course, this reflects the sheer grandeur of the original performances of these works, in what was then the new Cardinal College, Oxford (now Christ Church College, where the chapel is also Oxford Cathedral).

Cardinal College was a sumptuous foundation, funded by Cardinal Wolsey’s proceeds from the dissolution of some 30 monasteries. It had a choir of 16 boys and 12 or more singing men. Taverner’s appointment as its Director of Music was indicative of his status as a composer. Missa Mater Christi sanctissima reflects this in its sumptuous musical scale although, like the Western Wynde Mass, it is comparatively short. Taverner was suspected of Lutheran sympathies, although as a ‘mere musician’ this was overlooked by the authorities.

Western Wynde is an entirely secular song, whose only reference to “Cryst” comes with a wish that the protagonists’ lover was in his arms, and in his bed, blown there by the apparently reluctant western wind. Taverner builds a fascinating musical construction from this simple single-line melody, repeating it nine times in each movement, in different voice parts, thereby creating 36 variations spread over the four mass movements. He manages to make all four mass sections about the same length by using extended melismas in the otherwise shorter movements. Later composers also used the same melody, despite the lack of liturgical relevance, or harmonic structure.

The singing of the Westminster Abbey choir is forthright and powerful, particularly in the Missa Mater Christi sanctissima, reflecting music that was clearly meant to impress. James O’Donnell keeps a healthy pace up, although always allowing space for the individual voices to be heard through the acoustic. Judging by the photo, many of the boys look rather young, which perhaps explains why they occasionally appear a little shrill on their highest notes. But it is an invigorating sound, far removed from the Oxbridge weaned accuracy of most adult professional choirs.

More information about the recording can be found here and the programme notes are here.

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