Chorus vel Organa

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COMPOSERS: Cornysh,Ludford,Sheppard and anon
LABELS: Delphian
ALBUM TITLE: Chorus vel Organa
WORKS: Music from the Lost Palace of Westminster: works by Ludford, Cornysh, Sheppard and anon
PERFORMER: Choir of Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge/Geoffrey Webber; Magnus Williamson (organ)
CATALOGUE NO: DCD 34158

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Deep research and fierce musical intelligence underpin this project, which required the reconstruction of scores, practices, tunings and an early Tudor organ. The featured pre-Reformation plainsong, polyphony and solo organ music – nearly all in world-premiere recordings – is linked to the collegiate chapel of St Stephen’s, over which the Houses of Parliament was built. 

The St Teilo organ, and its player Magnus Williamson, are the stars here. The instrument is unique: pitched high (a semi-tone above the modern A440), and tuned to ‘good’ (slightly impure) major thirds, its tone is rich and its colours vivid. In wonderfully reckless solos, Williamson probes the qualities of this instrument, using it to dramatise chromatic crunches and rhythmic clashes. His performance illuminates the visceral impact this repertory was intended to have.

The recording’s vocal repertory focuses on the Lady Masses of Nicholas Ludford. Formal variety and meandering, often euphoric lines define the distance at which these pre-Reformation works stand from post-Reformation chapel music. Director Geoffrey Webber gets a robust and highly musical reading from his Cambridge vocalists. Choir members know just what they want to do with the recalcitrant polyphony of Ludford and others, a mark of their maturity as artists and scholars. Occasionally the male vocalists over-sing in the gimel sections. When thin textures leave voices overexposed, as sometimes happens, the generous recording acoustic is deftly used to compensate.

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This is a landmark in early Tudor church music recordings, showing how deeply entwined were organ and vocal music in pre-Reformation worship. Berta Joncus