Like his counterpart in Scotland Thomas Wode, John Baldwin is among a handful of musicians whom we have to thank for the preservation of the treasury of sixteenth-century choral music. Baldwin was particularly diligent, recording almost 170 works from early in the century right up to his own lifetime in the last quarter of the 1500s, many of which survive as unique copies. Most of the output of John Sheppard survives this way, although the loss of the tenor partbook has necessitated the reconstruction of that voice, leading to Sheppard somewhat ‘missing the bus’ in the revival in the middle of the last century of interest in Tudor church music. Contrapunctus under their enterprising director, Owen Rees, are devoting a series of CDs to these important partbooks, grouping their programmes by theme. It may seem perverse to start with death, but its ubiquity and immediacy for Tudor composers has led to a particularly fine and poignant body of music remaining from the time.
The undeniable jewel in the crown of this selection is Sheppard’s magisterial setting of Media vita which gives the CD its title, but the chief joy for me were the one or two works with which I was hitherto unfamiliar, such as William Byrd’s Circumdederunt me dolores mortis, which opens the programme, and the powerful Sive vigilem by the Flemish émigré Dericke Gerarde. The singing throughout is consistently full-toned and focused, but essentially for this repertoire constantly ready with expressive crescendos and decrescendos to mark textual changes in mood. With its nine highly experienced singers (boosted to ten for the larger works) Contrapunctus is the ideal group for this superb repertoire, and I look forward with eager anticipation to future CDs in this series.