Friday 13 July 2018

More than just Vox patris coelestis: a new William Mundy disc from Edinburgh

William Mundy: Sacred Choral Music - Choir of St Mary's Cathedral, Edinburgh - DELPHIAn
William Munday sacred choral music; Choir of St Mary's Cathedral, Edinburgh, Duncan Ferguson; DELPHIAN Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 5 June 2018 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A valuable addition to the William Mundy discography in dynamic & vibrant performances from Edinburgh

William Mundy came to maturity at an interesting time. He was a chorister at Westminster Abbey in the 1540s when religious change under Henry VIII was already underway. Though his career spanned the reigns of four monarchs, he lacked the adult experience of  the musical traditions of the pre-Reformation Church, and worked during a time when it was not clear what English Church Music should be. Our view of his music is complicated by the fact that few of his pieces have dates but his talent seems to have flowered under Queen Mary I when there was a return to pre-Reformation elaboration in church music.

This new disc on Delphian from Duncan Ferguson and the choir of St Mary's Cathedral, Edinburgh, features William Mundy's Latin church music. The programme has at its centre, three large scale pieces, each 15 minutes or more in length (though I have known performances of Vox patris coelestis take rather longer than this); the Marian votive antiphon Vox patris coelestis, perhaps Mundy's best known work, and its companion piece Maria virgo sanctissima, plus the Easter procession In exitu Israel written in collaboration with William Byrd and John Sheppard. Maria virgo sanctissima is performed in a new reconstruction by Magnus Williamson which completes the missing tenor part (its lack contributing to the work's relative unfamiliarity). To these are added smaller works. Beatus et sanctus, Allelua: Per te Dei gentrix (I & II) and Adolescentus sum ego.

From 1548 Mundy was parish clerk at the church of St Mary-at-Hill, a church which had strong links with the Chapel Royal musicians (it was Tallis's church, and Mundy's father had worked there). It is known that during the 1550s, the church hired extra musicians and made provision for large-scale music for the patronal festival on 15 August, and it is assumed that Mundy's Vox patris coelestis and Maria virgo sanctissima were written for these feast days. Both have large scale Marian texts which could conflate the Virgin Mary with Queen Mary, and the CD booklet enumerates a number of common structural and musical points about the works which makes it clear that the two are linked. On the other hand, there is a convincing theory that Vox patris coelestis was written for Queen Mary's coronation as she stopped along the processional route to hear music. We may never know for certain, all we can do is listen to the music.

The choir of St Mary's Cathedral, Edinburgh
The choir of St Mary's Cathedral, Edinburgh
And what music it is, wonderfully rich six-part textures woven in with solo passages with a structure harking back to earlier Tudor polyphony, but without the extreme melismatic nature of some of the earlier repertoire. When listening to Vox patris coelestis and Maria virgo sanctissima we rarely lose sight of what word is being sung, the way we do in Fayrfax, here the text is important as it was to be in the Counter-Reformation.

Vox patris coelestis has appeared regularly on CD before, with fine performances from both mixed adult ensembles, The Sixteen and The Tallis Scholars, and the men and boys of Westminster Abbey under James O'Donnell.

St Mary's Cathedral is Anglican and is unusual in Scotland in maintaining daily choral services, so the choir is firmly in the Anglican tradition. The choir uses 18 trebles, a mix of boys and girls, with a pool of 15 singers for the lower lines and unusually there is a woman amongst the male altos. They make a bright treble led sound, with plenty to enjoy in the confident performances. These are big, bold accounts of the music, in quite a resonant acoustic and perhaps details of the inner parts get lost, and occasionally the chant seems to lack an ideal fluidity. But there are compensations in the large-scale sweep and dynamism of the music. And, of course, the big plus of this disc is the sheer concentration on Mundy's Latin church music rather than just a selection in a mixed programme. It is a big plus to have both Vox patris coelestis and Maria virgo sanctissima on the disc, and this wonderful latter work deserves to be better known now there is a good edition of it.

The final large scale work is fascinating. In exitu Israel sets the Vulgate Psalm 113 and its antiphon as a processional which alternates chant with polyphony. The young William Byrd seems to have written some of the middle verses, with John Sheppard doing the first verses and William Mundy the later ones. The piece was used for a procession to the font, and on this disc we get the choir in realistic distant sound, a truly evocative moment with the music resonating round the cathedral.

There isn't a lot of William Mundy on disc and the only other major disc to be devoted to his sacred music seems to be that of Harry Christophers and The Sixteen, from 1987 (re-issued in 2002), which mixes the Latin church music with the later English pieces. This new disc from Duncan Ferguson and the choir of St Mary's Cathedral, Edinburgh, is thus a fascinating addition to Mundy's discography and thankfully there is plenty to enjoy in these dynamic and vibrant performances.

William Mundy (c1529-1591) - Beatus et sanctus
William Mundy -  Maria virgo sanctissima
William Mundy - Alleluia: Per te Dei genitrix I
William Mundy - Sive vigilam
William Mundy - Alleluia: Per te Dei genitrix II
William Mundy - Vox patris coelestis
William Mundy - Adolescentulus sum ego
John Sheppard, William Byrd, William Mundy - In exitu Israel
The choir of St Mary's Cathedral, Edinburgh
Duncan Ferguson (conductor)
Recorded 15-16 November 2016, 9-11 May 2017 in St Mary's Cathedral, Edinburgh
DELPHIAN DCD34204 1CD [65.15]
Available from Amazon.

Elsewhere on this blog:
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  • Striking a chord: Alison Bechdel's Fun Home as a musical at the Young Vic  - (★★★★)  musical theatre review
  • Romantic exploration: Rheinberger and Scholz piano concertos from Simon Callaghan (★★★★)  - CD review
  • Inner demons - Mozart's Idomeneo at the Buxton Festival  (★★★½) - Opera review
  • Rip-roaring rarity: Verdi's Alzira in a rare outing at the Buxton International Festival (★★★★) - Opera review
  • Changing the discourse, soprano Madeleine Pierard & director Sophie Gilpin talk about SWAP'ra - Interview
  • Garsington premiere: David Sawer & Rory Mullarkey's The Skating Rink (★★★★) - Opera review
  • Richly imaginative: Richard Blackford 's Niobe with Tamsin Waley-Cohen (★★★★★) - Cd review
  • Sublime Illusions - Noh Reimagined, a weekend of Noh performance and workshops at Kings Place (★★★★★) - music theatre review
  • Handel & Vivaldi from Grace Davidson & the Academy of Ancient Music (★★★½) - cd review
  • The good the bad and the ugly: Susan Froemke's The Opera House (★★★½) - film review
  • Home

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