Brian Wilson
MusicWeb International
October 2015

My love affair with Taverner’s Missa Corona Spinea goes back a long way to a Saga LP on which it was performed by the Schola Cantorum of Oxford directed by John Byrt. It first appeared at full price in 1969 and reappeared at budget price on Saga in 1973, soon after the birth of The Tallis Scholars. Like the new Gimell, it was coupled with Dum transisset Sabbatum I and it cost all of £0.79. (SAGA5369). Unfortunately the note at the end of Jeremy Noble’s otherwise very positive review in Gramophone that the recording was ‘not quite all it might be’ and that the low recording level was irritating ‘when the surface [was] not free from snaps and crackles’ was an understatement in the latter respect. Like, I’m sorry to say, most Saga releases until much later when they were manufactured in Germany, it sounded as if it had been pressed on medium-coarse sandpaper, but the performances, especially that of Dum transisset, set a very high benchmark in my unconscious.

Since then we have had two other benchmark recordings of the Mass which appeared around the same time in late 1989: one with boys’ voices on the top parts and another, like the new Gimell, with mixed voices from The Sixteen and Harry Christophers (Hyperion CDH55051, with Gaude plurimum and In pace, in idipsum or as part of budget-price 10-CD set, The Golden Age of English Polyphony, CDS44401/10). As John Quinn has made some detailed comparisons with the recording by The Sixteen, I shall not go over the same ground, merely echoing his preference for the Scholars but retaining an intention by no means to jettison The Sixteen.

In principle recordings with boy trebles and means should get us closer to the sound which Taverner would have expected. That’s especially true of the version from Christ Church, Oxford, directed by Francis Grier (with O Wilhelme, pastor bone, ASV CDGAU115, download only or as a special pressing from Presto): Taverner was the choirmaster of the short-lived Cardinal College, Oxford, which later became Christ Church and his Masses were probably intended for performance there, though the ASV underplayed the special nature of their recording, made using the descendants of Taverner’s choristers, by suggesting that the music had been intended not for Oxford but for the more modest parochial forces at Tattershall. With rather brisk tempos and high pitch Grier places great demands on his team, especially the boys, but they come through brilliantly for him and I shall want to continue to hear this recording alongside the Gimell.

More recently Delphian recorded another traditional Anglican choir, that of St Mary’s Cathedral, Edinburgh, in the music of Taverner: Dum transisset Sabbatum I; Leroy Kyrie; Missa Corona Spinea; Dum transisset Sabbatum II and O splendor glorie (DCD34023). As it happens, John Quinn and I both reviewed this—we often cover the same repertoire. That’s another Recording of the Month, which we both greatly enjoyed despite or even because of the fast tempi adopted by Duncan Ferguson. It’s especially valuable in prefacing the Mass, which has no setting of the Kyrie, as usual with Tudor settings, with Taverner’s ‘spare’ Leroy Kyrie.

At first hearing sixteenth-century polyphony presents a wall of sound. It’s a superbly built wall, but listen more attentively and it’s a wall in which the various parts are constantly moving and interlocking in different combinations. Even the number of the parts changes from one moment to the other, but it takes all the tricks of modern technology to record them so that we can hear them all. The ASV and Hyperion recordings are good but the new Gimell goes one or two better in offering, in addition to the CD, downloads in 24/96 (£15 from Gimell or Hyperion) and 24/176.4 sound, flac or alac. I downloaded the former but even the top quality is not expensive—£18 from Gimell or Hyperion, with 24/48 and 24/96 5.1 surround also available from Gimell. I also tried the 16-bit CD-quality download in order to burn it to disc and that sounds excellent, too. The 5.1 version sounds like a must-have for listeners with the right equipment.

The Recording of the Month designation comes from both of us. I’ve been playing this music for over a month and itching to write up the review and feeling constrained by the request to do so only around the time of the release. I’ve never tired of listening to it. I’m not a great fan of hearing music on the train but Missa Corona Spinea has accompanied me several times recently via the Sony Walkman, the latest version of which will play 24-bit quality files. I’ve even used it to test a new television sound-base, to which the Walkman ‘talks’ via Bluetooth.

All those years ago it wasn’t just the Corona Spinea Mass which captivated me, superb as that is. If anything, I found the Easter respond Dum transisset I even more entrancing. It’s a much more elaborate setting than Dum transisset II, with especially haunting repetitions of the word 'aromata'—the spices which the women had brought to the tomb. Schola Cantorum did that superbly but the Tallis scholars are at least their match and, by including both settings, they allow us to compare. They didn’t quite convince me that II is the equal of I but I can’t imagine better advocacy.

Many times in the past I’ve thought that the Tallis Scholars had reached their peak but yet again, as when I recently reported on their 200th concert, they have proved that they are still on top form, perhaps even surpassing their previous best. With recording to match—go for one of the 24-bit downloads if possible, but the CD is fine, too—lovers of Tudor polyphony should not hesitate.