WORKS: Missa Si ambulavero
PERFORMER: Choir of New College, Oxford/Edward Higginbottom
CATALOGUE NO: 3520 Reissue
Both of these recordings were first issued on Collins in the Nineties. I reviewed the disc devoted to the 16th-century Spanish composer Philippe de Monte in January 1999, and have not really changed my view since. The New College Choir is reasonably professional, and even compellingly moving in ‘Peccavi super numerum’, but its 32 voices are too many for the agile and labyrinthine textures of the Si ambulavero Mass and some of the motets. This is not to say that the singers do not make a pleasing sound – most of its recordings have a convincing atmosphere – but it works slightly against this music, rather than for it.
The Byrd and Tallis recording is new to me, but seems to be better musically and stylistically, partly because the choir has cut the number of singers by half, and partly because they have a better understanding of the composers. This is readily apparent in the beautifully poised unfolding of the Heth section of the Tallis Lamentations, which ends with a mesmerisingly lingering chord. Again, throughout the disc (but especially in the Byrd Lamentations), the passing harmonic dissonances are leant on just enough to contribute to the overall emotional effect, rather than produce a series of isolated sonic shocks which seems to be the fashion among some recent performers. Only the Byrd Four-Part Mass slightly disappoints with its occasionally lurching phrasing; a better buy here is the Oxford Camerata version on Naxos. Anthony Pryer