John Quinn
MusicWeb International
October 2015

This is, I think, the third recording of a Mass by John Taverner that Peter Phillips and the Tallis Scholars have made. They recorded the Western Wind Mass as far back as 1993 (review). They waited some twenty years before committing another Taverner Mass to disc: the great Missa Gloria tibi Trinitas was issued in 2013 to mark in sumptuous style the group’s fortieth anniversary (review). It may be coincidence but within weeks of achieving another important milestone—their 2000th concert (review)—along comes a new recording of another opulent Taverner Mass: Missa Corona Spinea.

Missa Corona Spinea (‘The Crown of Thorns’) is one of Taverner’s most important and ambitious works. It’s conceived on a grand scale; Peter Phillips notes that it’s more than one hundred modern bars longer than Missa Gloria tibi Trinitas, which itself is a very substantial piece indeed. An indication—but only an indication—of the scale of Missa Corona Spinea can be gleaned from the fact that Phillips’ recorded performance of Missa Gloria tibi Trinitas plays for some six minutes less (42:21). In his notes Phillips speculates plausibly that the Mass was probably written for a big occasion and that perhaps this occasion was a visit in 1527 by King Henry VIII and his then Queen, Catherine of Aragon, to Cardinal College, Oxford, founded by Taverner’s patron, Cardinal Wolsey.

The Mass is elaborately scored in six parts (TrMATBB) and what I might term the extremities of the scoring call for comment. In the first place the treble line is extraordinarily—and unremittingly—high-lying. Secondly, Taverner anchors the ensemble with not one but two bass parts. As Peter Phillips points out, it would have been more usual to have two alto parts. To employ an architectural analogy one might suggest that the high and decorative treble line is akin to the tracery in the fan vaulting that was so much a feature of pre-Reformation English ecclesiastical buildings while the bass parts provide support similar to that afforded by flying buttresses. Faced with Taverner’s opulent writing, and perhaps feeling the need to reinforce his trebles, Phillips has expanded his normal two voices per part forces; here the Tallis Scholars number 18 singers in all (3/2/4/3/3/3).

Perhaps the inevitable comparator for this new recording is the 1989 Hyperion recording by Harry Christophers and The Sixteen, which has previously been reviewed by Brian Wilson and Ralph Moore. There’s a great deal to admire in the Christophers recording but there are two crucial differences between it and the new Tallis Scholars version. One concerns the recorded sound. The Hyperion recording was made in St Jude-on-the-Hill Church in London. Christophers’ choir is placed further away from the microphones than are the Tallis Scholars. Gimell’s recording is more closely balanced—though not in an oppressive way. This means that there’s more of an acoustic halo round The Sixteen while the sound of the Tallis Scholars has much more impact. The aural effect—or illusion—is that with Gimell you feel as if you’re hearing the singers from a seat nearby in the quire whereas Hyperion offers you a seat in a pew situated a few rows back from the altar rail. This has implications for the music; the polyphony emerges with much greater clarity on the Gimell recording.

The other important difference is to do with pacing. For once, the respective timings do give a fair view. Harry Christophers takes 39:07, compared with Peter Phillips’ overall timing of 47:49. The difference in timings reflect the fact that at almost every turn Christophers adopts a swifter tempo which, it seems to me, is consistent with a very different view of the work as compared to Peter Phillips.

The Gloria offers a good—and fairly typical—example of the respective approaches. From the start Peter Phillips evidences a more spacious view of the music than does his colleague. Perhaps there’s a bit more flamboyance and athleticism to Christophers’ performance and some may well prefer that. However, I think Phillips brings out the sheer grandeur of the piece to a much greater degree. As I indicated earlier, the part-writing registers with far greater clarity in the Gimell recording. The arresting treble line is even more evident in the Phillips reading than in the Christophers version. When we get to ‘Qui tollis’ (at 5:33 in the Gimell account, 4:18 with The Sixteen) Phillips invests the music with a satisfying degree of breadth. Christophers eases his tempo too but his approach is the more flowing of the two. The Phillips performance sounds more devotional. At ‘Qui sedes’ Taverner deploys all six parts together and the Tallis Scholars produce a very full and majestic sound—and the fearsome treble line sounds absolutely secure, as it does from The Sixteen. Phillips steps up the pace at ‘Cum sancto Spiritu’ and there’s a palpable air of jubilation. At this point Christophers is quicker and his performance is very exciting; however, the polyphony is nowhere near as clear on his recording.

I’ve gone into some detail about the Gloria. I don’t propose to continue the detailed comparisons because this movement of the Mass typifies the respective approaches of the two performances throughout the work as a whole. Phillips’ account of the Credo is superb, especially in several passages where all six parts are heard. In these sections the Tallis Scholars produce rich, full sound and the polyphonic writing positively buzzes. The full-throated ‘Hosanna’ section of the Sanctus is thrilling while the Benedictus that follows is serene and long-breathed. Partway through the Benedictus, at ‘Qui venit in nomine Domini’ (track 7 from 0:41) Peter Philips draws our attention to a gimell, in which the treble part divides into two. This is an extraordinarily elaborate and extended example of this device and it’s splendidly caught by the engineers.

Taverner caps this achievement a few minutes later. The first section of the three-fold Agnus Dei unfolds in a timeless fashion—this is an excellent example of Peter Phillips’ spacious and patient approach to the music paying huge dividends. In the second Agnus (track 10, from 1:29) there’s a double gimell in which not only the treble part but also the mean is divided. This is even more remarkable than the first use of the device; Taverner’s invention is even more lavish and once again the gimell writing is very extended.

This is a magnificent recording of Missa Corona Spinea. The singing shows all the customary hallmarks of a Tallis Scholars recording: absolute precision, immaculate balance and blend; flawless tuning; and great commitment to the music. I should single out for special praise Janet Coxwell, Amy Haworth and Emma Walshe who sustain Taverner’s stratospherically high treble line. The part is tremendously demanding yet there’s never the slightest hint of strain in the singing which has consistent purity of tone and a laser-like focus. I’m thoroughly convinced by Peter Phillips’ spacious and often majestic approach to the music. I wouldn’t by any means dismiss the Christophers account; I admire the energy and drive in what is a very valid alternative way with the music. However, I think that the Tallis Scholars convey more successfully the grandeur which is at the heart of this Mass setting and the recorded balance means that their singing has greater impact than is achieved on the Hyperion disc. Should you discard the Hyperion in favour of this new Gimell? No, but if you already have the Christophers performance you should add this new recording because the two conceptions of the work are different and complementary; collectors of English polyphony should on no account miss this Gimell disc. For myself, I have a strong preference for the Tallis Scholars but The Sixteen also have much to say about this extraordinary work.

The attraction of the new disc is enhanced by the addition of both of Taverner’s wonderful settings of the Easter Sunday Matins Respond, Dum transisset Sabbatum. It seems almost superfluous to say that both are superbly performed.

This is a spectacular disc from the Tallis Scholars.