When James O’Donnell was in charge of Westminster Cathedral Choir, he produced a discography rich with the ebony and gold music of Renaissance Italy and Spain. Since 2000, when he moved to the other end of Victoria Street and took control of the choir of Westminster Abbey, his focus has shifted to the dense greenery of Tudor polyphony. In this recording of John Taverner’s Mater Christi sanctissima, Francis Steele’s reconstruction fo the Missa Mater Christi sanctissma, and the Western Wynde Mass, the difference between the two choirs is more obvious than ever. Where the Cathedral choristers developed a bright, sophisticated, Continental timbre, the boys of the Abbey sound airy, innocent and very young.
Their lightness provides an arresting contrast to the burnished blend of the Abbey’s tenors and basses, with a clean, pure alto line to bridge the gap, most effectively in the opening stanza of Taverner’s motet. To those listeners who are used to hearing adult sopranos voice the elaborate imagery of Marian motets, it is odd to hear such leafy simplicity. At best, the openness and lack of guile is refreshing. On occasion, however, the trebles tackle Taverner’s intricate melismatic writing like novice skiers. This nursery slope giddiness is most pronounced in the Gloria and Sanctus of the first Mass. O’Donnell favours brisk tempos throughout, much to the benefit of the Western Wynde Mass. It’s a robust, rhythmic, grounded performance, and is presented with pithy liner notes by Jeremy Summerly, but I won’t be trading in the Tallis Scholars or The Sixteen.