Weelkes, Taverner, Byrd, Sheppard, Blow, Purcell, Locke & Humfrey

COMPOSERS: Blow,Byrd,Locke & Humfrey,Purcell,Sheppard,Taverner,Weelkes
LABELS: Nimbus
ALBUM TITLE: Collection: English Choral Music 1514-1682
WORKS: Works by Weelkes, Taverner, Byrd, Sheppard, Blow, Purcell, Locke & Humfrey
PERFORMER: Christ Church Cathedral Choir, Oxford/Stephen Darlington
CATALOGUE NO: NI 1762
This anthology of English choral music from Stephen Darlington and the Christ Church Choir is a mixed lot. On the one hand, listeners are assured of highly trained singing that attests to the venerable choral tradition for which England’s cathedrals are justly renowned. On the other, the frequent turnover of personnel in such choirs (these recordings date from 1988 to 1995) creates unfortunate inconsistencies.

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Nevertheless, under Darlington’s firm direction, and supported by Andrew Carwood’s profound knowledge of the liturgy and David Skinner’s scholarly editions, the Christ Church choristers offer a rewarding survey of this repertoire.

Weelkes’s imaginative exploration of different vocal groupings is portrayed most impressively in the verse anthems. The choir’s attentive phrasing achieves real emotional power in the agonisingly stringent harmonies of When David heard. However, despite some fine singing, most notably in the closing moments of the Magnificat of the Ninth, the Services are less well focused.

Christ Church Choir’s affinity with Taverner (who was the first ‘informator’ of the choristers at the college) is apparent in the intelligent programming of two discs in the set. The Missa Mater Christi sounds aptly spiritual in the liturgical context provided for it by Carwood who, as celebrant, presides over atmospheric plainsong chanting. The textural diversity of Taverner’s output is demonstrated in a selection of shorter pieces, among which Audivi vocem and two remarkably contrasting versions of Dum transisset sabbatum make attractive highlights.

As with the Taverner, Byrd’s Masses for three, four and five voices are offered within a liturgical frame – in this case with ‘Propers’ from the Gradualia. Unfortunately, notwithstanding some careful shaping of line and expression in these pieces, the Christ Church Choir’s sense of broad architecture fails to convince.

The programme of Chapel Royal anthems is also disappointing. The predominance of minor keys and stodgy presentation, characterised by excessive syllabic emphasis, creates a depressing gloom. Some relief is provided by Carwood’s committed performances and the excellent treble soloist in Purcell’s Hear me, O Lord.

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Finally, the Sheppard disc exemplifies this set’s strengths and its weaknesses. A pedestrian account of the Second Service is coupled with a group of anthems that shows Darlington’s singers more inspired by varied moods. They luxuriate in Sheppard’s opulent polyphony, while the solo singing in Gaude, gaude, gaude Maria deserves praise. Nicholas Rast