Sunday 17 November 2013

John Sheppard - Sacred Choral Works

John Sheppard - Gaude, gaude, gaude Maria: CHSA 0401
We don't actually know much about John Sheppard (c1515 - 1558), what we do have is his music including the incredible large scale works as Media Vita and Gaude, gaude, gaude Maria virgo. These works have generally been the purlieu of mixed voice consorts on disc, but on this new disc the choir of St. John's College, Cambridge (men and boys) under Andrew Nethsingha have recorded a disc of Sheppard's sacred music centred on Gaude, gaude, gaude Maria virgo. Their programme includes Sheppard's Western Wynde Mass plus In page, in idipsum dormiam, In manus tuas, Domine, Haec dies, Spiritus Sanctus procedens, The Lord's Prayer and Christ rising again.

The programme starts with Gaude, gaude, gaude Maria virgo which probably dates from the reign of Queen Mary. It is a large scale work, written for six part choir and whose text combines the Respond and Prose for the Second Vespers on the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary.  A complex piece which wraps the polyphonic respond around the chant of the prose. Nethsinga takes it at quite a steady tempo, making the music quite stately, allowing it to unfold. The choral sound is quite treble led, with a lovely clear treble sound. The recording was made in the chapel of St. John's College, which is very atmospheric but quite a generous acoustic. This means that the interior details can be a bit fuzzy but the overall sound is glorious. Nethsinga paces the work in fine, long-breathed paragraphs giving the feeling of the glorious structure slowly unfolding, with finely sung polyphony in quite widely spaced vocal lines. The polyphony alternates with chant, beautifully realised by John Clapham.

In his note in the CD booklet liner notes, Nethsinga explains that he has structured the programme around a liturgical sequence running from the Feast of the Purification to Trinity Sunday, with the movements of the mass split. 

In pace, in idipsum dormium is a shorter work, alternating chant and polyphony, setting a Respond for Sunday Compline in Lent. Nethsinga has used different transpositions for each work, depending on what suited the voices of the choral scholars. In pace, in idipsum dormium is a four-part piece which they perform at quite low pitch. It is a calmly, beautifully controlled performance, with a tighter texture; simple and effective, given great attention.

The Lord's Prayer, an English setting presumably written for Edward VI's Protestant church, is another simple but effective work with clean lines and clear words. There is a strong feeling that the main prayer is in the treble line with the other vocies joining in and commenting.

In manus tuas, Domine is Sheppard's second setting (of a total of three) of a Respond at Compline on Passion Sunday probably dating from Edward VI's reign. Performed with altos on the top line, it is quite a close textured four-part work. A slow and thoughtful performance, with a clear sense of different, characterful voices rather than a homogenous blend. If I heard this at Compline at the end of the day, then it would be sheer magic.

Sheppard's Western Wynd Mass is one of a group of Tudor works based on a secular song (the same as used in John Taverner and Christopher Tye's Western Wynd Masses). It is a remarkable contrast to the other works on the disc. Sheppard's writing is lively and rhythmic with an appearling dance like feel, with passages for just two voices. In the Gloria there is a striking tenor and bass suet for the miserere nobis.

Following the Gloria of the mass, we get Haec dies the gradual for Easter Day sung to chant by Geoffrey Clapham. It is a wonderfully melismatic chant, sung with a lovely grainy baritone.

The Credo of the mass is rhythmic and brightly appealing with a lively dancing texture. Sheppard's setting keeps the words clear whilst enlivening the textures with moments of polyphony. Et incarnatus is a fascinating duet for treble and tenor, with more voices joining in the cruficixus and the whole ensemble returning in Et Resurrexit. Sheppard concludes with remarkable triple time et exspecto.

The Sanctus combines melisma with long breathed sections in an interesting inerplay of voices. There is a liveliness and vividness to the inner parts even in the quieter sections. Pleni sunt coeli is a duet for trebles and tenors, with the long line for the trebles contrasting with a remarkably lively melismatic tenor line. A lively triple time Hosanna frames a beautifully poised Benedictus where the vocal parts are quite widely spaced. The Agnus Dei is poised and calm, with much effective use of duets and some long melismatic passages. The final Agnus Dei culminates in a dancing triple time Dona nobis pacem.

Sheppard's Western Wynde Mass is a fascinating piece, with many lovely moments and I can't really understand why it is not better known.

The choir follow the mass with Christ rising again a four-part anthem which like the Lord's Prayer seems to date from the reign of Edward VI. It is sung by a quartet of four low voices (two tenors and two basses, Samuel Oladeinde, Xavier Hetherington, John Holland-Avery and Geoffrey Clapham). There is little sense of Sheppard simplifying things, and rather than straightforward homophony he gives us a rather busy texture.

Spritus Sanctus procedens sets a text associated with Pentecost. Sheppard alternates the six-part polyphonic sections with sections of chant, and has the chant present as slow moving notes in the tenor line of the polyphony. The vocal lines are quite widely spaced, with a lovely high treble part, and fine melismatic lines, each part ebbing and flowing in the texture.

Aeterne rex altissime is a hymn for Vespers on Ascension Day which alternates chant and polyphony. Sung by the lower voices, in the polyphonic passages the top voice (the altos) holds a slow cantus firmus whilst the other voices create a busy texture below it. Finally the choir sings Libera nos, salva nos one of Sheppard's two surviving settings of the Antiphon at Matins on Trinity Sunday. Written for seven part choir with the parts widely spaced, we get a full, slow-moving texture.

The CD booklet contains full texts and translations, plus an article on Sheppard and his music as well as a note from Andrew Nethsinga about the music and the choices he made when creating the programme.

The disc is a remarkable achievement, with some of Sheppard's most substantial works finely sung by the boys and choral scholars of the choir of St John's College, Cambridge under Andrew Nethsinga's poised direction. It is lovely to hear the top lines sung by trebles, supported by a substantial number in the other voices - 16 trebles, four counter-tenors, six tenors and seven basses.

I have always had a soft spot for Sheppard's music and this lovely selection in fine, atmospheric performances will certainly get played a lot.

John Sheppard - Gaude, gaude, gaude Maria; Choir of St John's College, Cambridge, Andrew Nethsingha
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Nov 14 2013
Rating: 5.0

John Sheppard (c1515 - 1558) - Gaude, gaude, gaude Maria virgo [14.00]
John Sheppard (c1515 - 1558) - In pace, in idipsum dormiam [6.09]
John Sheppard (c1515 - 1558) - The Lord's Prayer [3.01]
John Sheppard (c1515 - 1558) - In manus tuas, Domine [4.23
John Sheppard (c1515 - 1558) - Western Wynde Mass [18.28]
Plainchant - Haec dies [2.34]
John Sheppard (c1515 - 1558) - Christ rising again [3.46]
John Sheppard (c1515 - 1558) - Spiritus Sanctus procedens [9.58]
John Sheppard (c1515 - 1558) - Aeterne rex altissime [4.24]
John Sheppard (c1515 - 1558) - Libera nos, salva nos [3.18]
Choir of St John's College, Cambridge
Andrew Nethsingha (conductor)
Recorded in St John's College Chapel, Cambrdige, 11-13 January 2013

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  1. I enjoyed your generous review of this glorious music. Have you seen berta joncus' incredibly mean spirited review in the current BBC music magazine?

  2. No, I haven't. I must confess that I don't always see the magazine.


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