The Tallis Scholars Perform John Taverner’s Missa Corona spinea

Missa Corona spinea and Dum transisset Sabbatum I & II conducted by Peter Phillips.

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LABELS: Gimell
ALBUM TITLE: John Taverner: Missa Corona spinea
WORKS: Missa Corona spinea; Dum transisset Sabbatum I & II
PERFORMER: The Tallis Scholars/Peter Phillips


John Taverner’s Missa Corona spinea is one of the high points of English sacred music: a seraphic, festal Mass, probably written for Thomas Wolsey’s newly founded Cardinal College, Oxford. Stratospheric and florid treble lines (a characteristic of Tudor polyphony) soar over an imperturbable cantus firmus to create a truly ethereal sound. Taverner paints vivid sonorities with his rich, six-voice scoring, offsetting timbres, reaching into the extremes of vocal tessitura, splitting and omitting voices: listen to the Benedictus and the second Agnus Dei to hear these effects at their most haunting and other worldly.

The Mass requires singers of the highest calibre and the Scholars rise magnificently to the challenge – both literally and figuratively speaking. The sopranos sing with razor-sharp precision, producing a remarkably boyish sound – aptly so, since the work was written for a male choir – while the lower voices are fluid and sure. Ensemble is balanced and textures are sheer, even in the most sumptuous polyphony.


There is another fine version of this work by The Sixteen under Harry Christophers, recorded in 1989 and now available at budget price on Helios. By comparison, The Tallis Scholars produce a brighter sound that better evokes the brilliance of boys’ voices – a quality enhanced by the detailed and vibrant recording. Under Peter Phillips’s expansive direction, the Mass unfolds at a slower pace, heightening its sense of gravitas, yet the phrasing is sinuous and buoyant throughout. The Sixteen’s account remains a classic but it is hard to imagine a more radiant and uplifting performance than this new one. Kate Bolton-Porciatti