John Taverner - Missa Corona spinea - Dum transisset Sabbatum I and II

"The Missa Corona spinea is a kind of treble concerto, packed with mind-blowing sonorities. If ever there was music to exemplify Shakespeare's 'Music of the Spheres', it is here, and especially in the two ecstatic treble gimells. The first performance, probably in front of Henry VIII and Cardinal Wolsey, must have been an astonishing occasion." Peter Phillips

For the track list and album notes and to buy the CD or Album Download please click the link to the Hyperion Records website.

CDGIM 046

The download is a zipped file containing PDF scores for Missa Corona spinea and Dum transisset Sabbatum I & II

 

 "It's just an awesomely beautiful record. The music itself is stunning, these gorgeous long lines that weave in and out of each other. The thing that gets me, though, is it's one of the most difficult pieces to sing. The sopranos in this piece, I don't know how they do it, they are up on these high, high B flats and to me it's like being at the top of a roller coaster looking down and it's just so scary for a singer to do that! The purity, the clarity with which they sing is jaw-dropping."  Suzy Klein, 9 December 2015

Chosen by BBC Radio 4's "Front Row" as one of the two top Classical albums to give as presents at Christmas. Listen on the BBC iPlayer from 22-15.

Suzy Klein

10/10

The famous work on this CD is the Missa Corona spinea (Crown of Thorns Mass), which Taverner wrote around 1527. It was probably commissioned by the powerful Cardinal Wolsey, who must have overseen a choir good enough to rise to the challenge of this exceptional 6-voice setting. In particular it has a demandingly high soprano part, which on this recording steals the show. Right at the start the sopranos hit a crystal high B flat, as if it were the easiest thing in the world. In this elevated, unearthly region they draw us to a heavenly sound-world which, by a delicate thread, seems only just to be connected to the more 'normal' voices beneath them. Magically beautiful. Intense, too. With a belief in its powers of expression which takes your breath away.

Conductor Peter Phillips suggests that if Wolsey really did order the composition of this piece, it is possible that King Henry VIII was so impressed, and jealous, that it contributed to the Cardinal's downfall in 1530. After the mass we hear two settings by Taverner of Dum transisset Sabbatum. On the website gimell.com you can download all the scores of the featured works for free: with these you can see as well as hear the beauty of this music.

Frank Pothoven

Luister (Netherlands)

5* Performance  -  5* Recording

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. 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 ... it is hard to imagine a more radiant and uplifting performance than this new one.

Kate Bolton

BBC Music Magazine

The 16th century was the golden age of English music. In the work of Elizabethan composers such as Thomas Tallis and William Byrd is a musical style so beautifully expressive, inventive and distinct that it is still considered the pinnacle of our national musical tradition. Their sweet harmonies and glorious counterpoint regularly resound around cathedrals and concert halls, a living testament to an exceptional cultural era.

It wasn't just during Elizabeth's reign, though, that British choirs enjoyed a wealth of compositional riches. Cultural ravages perpetrated in the name of the Reformation meant few manuscripts witnessing England's earlier musical heritage survive. Those that do, however, attest to a truly extraordinary choral style, little influenced by the continental currents of the time.

The sumptuous music in the Eton Choirbook, a huge manuscript compiled in the very first years of the 16th century, is unique in its extravagantly florid lines and saturated choral textures. Featuring the work of 20-odd composers, it offers a vivid yet tantalising glimpse of a pre-Reformation musical culture. I was strongly reminded of this collection when listening to The Tallis Scholars' spectacular new CD, featuring John Taverner's Missa Corona spinea. Elements of the elaborate Etonian tradition can be found, a quarter of a century later, in Taverner's virtuosic setting. He must have had unbelievably talented trebles in his Oxford college choir because from start to finish this is a mass made for stratospheric soprano singing.

Nowadays I wouldn't entrust it to many choirs other than conductor Peter Phillips' Tallis Scholars, whose sopranos' purity and focus is essential for this exploration of the upper limits of the register. Janet Coxwell and Amy Haworth deliver a stunning display of tonal clarity and stamina, performing with breathtaking control. The rest of the choir lend the tutti sections a satisfyingly full sonority which, in combination with the extravagant top part, is reminiscent of the Eton repertoire. Content to take a back seat for the majority of the mass, the inner voices swell irresistibly with beautiful rising phrases in the rare moments the sopranos snatch a few bars' respite. Phillips' tempi give the music ample room to breathe. It's a fantastic recording that'll leave your ears ringing rejoicingly.

To think this heavenly music may have been performed - as Phillips suggests in his liner notes - to King Henry just a few years before he oversaw the systematic destruction of everything it represents is a bitter irony. Fortunately, the choral legacy of Eton and Taverner adapted, survived and eventually flourished in the work of the next generation of composers, the Elizabethan exemplars Tallis and Byrd.

David Fay

The Big Issue

 John Taverner (not to be confused with near-namesake John Tavener) is a shadowy presence in early English music. His unaccompanied Missa Corona spinea may have been commissioned by Cardinal Wolsey; Peter Phillips' booklet essay suggests that the work's musical flamboyance could have invoked Henry VIII's jealousy, hastening Wolsey's abrupt fall from favour. There are several remarkable things in this piece, notably two 'gimmells', passages where a single line is divided into two parts. The examples cited by Peter Phillips in his sleeve note are startling. Particularly that in the Sanctus: trebles Janet Coxwell and Amy Haworth soaring higher than you'd imagine to be physically possible, with an accuracy and purity of tone that defy belief. Taverner must have been writing for an elite team of trebles; it's quickly apparent that none of the other vocal parts are as challenging.

You'd expect the Tallis Scholars to excel in this repertoire. There's a boldness and confidence to this performance which is utterly disarming. Their lack of vibrato allows every quirk in Taverner's writing to register, without ever sounding too polite, too ‘English'. Intonation is impeccable, and when they're singing at full pelt (as in the brief Alleluia which concludes the work), their sound is rich, fullsome but never overbearing. Immaculately recorded in Oxford's Merton College - this is a remarkable disc. Phillips' erudite essay will tell you all you need to know about Taverner, and the sleeve art is striking. Marvellous.

Graham Rickson

5/5

The English professional vocal ensemble the Tallis Scholars, under the direction of Peter Phillips, was founded as long ago as 1973. However this group, in which some of the most famous early music singers on the English scene have sung in their time, has certainly not just been a phenomenon of the last century, when Phillips's CDs perhaps made their greatest impact. No, to this day they have continued to give concerts and produce discs; and although the make-up of the singers is now completely different from what it was 20 or 30 years ago, the characteristics and ideals of their unmistakeable sound have remained as they always were: incorruptible purity of intonation alongside a strong, vibrato-free, very clean and objective but never cold sound - in fact a priority of sound over text and dynamics, which is not to say that these two things are neglected.

It is these qualities which distinguish the new recording under review, for which Phillips and his singers decided to tackle an exceptional, indeed an exceptionally difficult work. John Taverner's Missa Corona spinea is one of those elaborate settings of the English renaissance which distinguishes itself through a wide six-voice vocal compass featuring an extremely high treble part. The polyphonic web is wound around a cantus firmus which so far has not been traced back to a Gregorian melody. The voices - in this setting above all the treble - show some of the most astonishing ornamental virtuosity to be found in the mass repertoire of the period (especially by comparison with mainstream continental writing). Corona spinea is, like its sister works, a real sound orgy, which remains deeply impressive even after repeated hearings.

The Tallis Scholars, who have engaged with Taverner many times before, here record this piece for the first time. They master its difficulties altogether more convincingly than Harry Christophers and the Sixteen did years ago, on whose recording, amongst other things, the high treble part fails to realise the luminosity which is so striking on the Tallis Scholars version. An exceptional CD.

Michael Wersin

Rondo (Germany)

It may not be Allegri’s Miserere, but Taverner’s Missa Corona spinea is still one of the virtuoso highlights of Renaissance choral music. For long stretches the sopranos soar an octave above the rest of the singers, regularly lingering on high B flats (at present-day pitch) like gymnasts poised at the highest point of a routine on the rings.

The Tallis Scholars are up to the challenge. Peter Phillips leads a gleaming performance of Taverner’s “crown of thorns” mass and also adds the composer’s two contrasting settings of Dum transisset Sabbatum for Easter Sunday.

Richard Fairman

 This new release of John Taverner's virtuosic and florid Missa Corona spinea comes two years after The Tallis Scholars' critically esteemed recording of the composer's Missa Gloria tibi Trinitas, which topped the UK Specialist Classical Album Chart for 6 weeks, and with which the ensemble celebrated their 40th anniversary.

Like its predecessor, this recording of the Missa Corona spinea (recorded in Merton College Chapel, Oxford) showcases The Tallis Scholars' musical and technical strengths. The music makes enormous technical demands on the singers; not least the trebles whose lines (sung by Janet Coxwell and Amy Haworth) push unremittingly upwards - as if striving for celestial heights: indeed, the treble lines sometimes seem to have floated free from their ensemble moorings, so stratospheric are their meanderings. There is certainly a sense of the thrill of a communion with heavenly realms as Phillips generates tremendous dynamism and excitement, rippling through the six vocal lines. Taverner's invention is seemingly infinite: the melodic effusions spin and swirl, and The Tallis Scholars combine clarity and precision with the ability to sustain the musical narrative of the elongated, elaborate vocal phrases - through extensive sequences, ornamental decoration and passages of antiphony. Characteristically, intonation and blend are superlative. Impressive, too, is the way Phillips shapes the phrases and structures - the sequences and canons which impose ‘order' on the melodic extravagance - with an ear and eye to their function within the liturgical context, but also injects interpretative freedom.

The circumstances of the first performance of the Mass are unknown, but in a succinct, informative liner-article Peter Phillips speculates that it may have been written for performance in Thomas Wolsey's gigantic new foundation of Cardinal College, Oxford.

Whatever its origins, this is a truly magnificent and extravagant festal mass for 6 voices (TMATBB). The first silvery phrases of the ‘Gloria in excelsis Deo' emerge fluently from the tenor's chant, and as the trebles' crystalline threads are gradually fused with the voices below it is as if light from the heavens is gradually steeping the earth. The ‘Qui tollis' reverses this transference; here the open-textured, slow-moving bass and tenor parts, earnest and solemn in tone, are joined by upper voices whose lines aspire aloft. The long-breathed imitation pushes ever onwards, the motifs evolving and the voices entwining. The more homophonic passages are warm and focused, conveying an assurance and faith.

The meticulous clarity of the recording is evident in passages such as the opening of the ‘Credo in unum Deo' where the pairs of voices are astonishingly pristine.  Throughout the Mass, the contrasts of timbre are wonderfully defined, and the second ‘Agnus Dei' offers a particularly ravishing arrange of vocal textures and colours, from the rich low resonance of the opening to translucent brilliance of the higher lying episodes. When the two strata converge the result is a thrilling rainbow of sound. ‘Dona nobis pacem' is bright and spirited, a wonderfully joyous conclusion.

The Tallis Scholars reveal and relish the ‘medievalism' of this Mass: its unconstrained profuseness suggests a decorative rather than an expressive splendour, but the sheer grandeur of the architecture and its embellishment - and the infinite variety of texture - makes a heady impact. There is immense vigour within and between the vocal lines, and the vocal sound is one of utmost beauty. The constant fountain of elaborate sound might be overwhelming, were it not for Phillips' discerning craftsmanship.

Claire Seymour

This recording of the Missa Corona spinea (recorded in Merton College Chapel, Oxford) showcases The Tallis Scholars' musical and technical strengths. The music makes enormous technical demands on the singers; not least the trebles whose lines (sung by Janet Coxwell and Amy Haworth) push unremittingly upwards - as if striving for celestial heights: indeed, the treble lines sometimes seem to have floated free from their ensemble moorings, so stratospheric are their meanderings.

There is certainly a sense of the thrill of a communion with heavenly realms as Phillips generates tremendous dynamism and excitement, rippling through the six vocal lines. Taverner's invention is seemingly infinite: the melodic effusions spin and swirl, and The Tallis Scholars combine clarity and precision with the ability to sustain the musical narrative of the elongated, elaborate vocal phrases - through extensive sequences, ornamental decoration and passages of antiphony. Characteristically, intonation and blend are superlative. Impressive, too, is the way Phillips shapes the phrases and structures - the sequences and canons which impose ‘order' on the melodic extravagance - with an ear and eye to their function within the liturgical context, but also injects interpretative freedom.

The circumstances of the first performance of the Mass are unknown, but in a succinct, informative liner-article Peter Phillips speculates that it may have been written for performance in Thomas Wolsey's gigantic new foundation of Cardinal College, Oxford - an institution where Taverner was Informator between 1526 and 1530. There is apparently evidence that Henry VIII visited Cardinal College in 1527, with his new queen, Catherine of Aragon. Moreover, Phillips relates Hugh Benham's appealing conjecture that since Catherine was a known devotee to the cult of Christ's passion, one of whose emblems was the Crown of Thorns, the Mass may have been written for her; after all, the queen's own emblem was the pomegranate - whose prickly appearance may resemble a crown, and her motto as ‘Not for my crown'.

Whatever its origins, this is a truly magnificent and extravagant festal mass for 6 voices (TMATBB). The first silvery phrases of the ‘Gloria in excelsis Deo' emerge fluently from the tenor's chant, and as the trebles' crystalline threads are gradually fused with the voices below it is as if light from the heavens is gradually steeping the earth. The ‘Qui tollis' reverses this transference; here the open-textured, slow-moving bass and tenor parts, earnest and solemn in tone, are joined by upper voices whose lines aspire aloft. The long-breathed imitation pushes ever onwards, the motifs evolving and the voices entwining. The more homophonic passages are warm and focused, conveying an assurance and faith.

The meticulous clarity of the recording is evident in passages such as the opening of the ‘Credo in unum Deo' where the pairs of voices are astonishingly pristine. Phillips generates compelling forward momentum in this movement, effecting an uplifting crescendo as the texture thickens; after such excitement, the subsequent ‘Et incarnatus est' offers quieter consolations.

Throughout the Mass, the contrasts of timbre are wonderfully defined, and the second ‘Agnus Dei' offers a particularly ravishing arrange of vocal textures and colours, from the rich low resonance of the opening to translucent brilliance of the higher lying episodes. When the two strata converge the result is a thrilling rainbow of sound. ‘Dona nobis pacem' is bright and spirited, a wonderfully joyous conclusion.


The Tallis Scholars reveal and relish the ‘medievalism' of this Mass: its unconstrained profuseness suggests a decorative rather than an expressive splendour, but the sheer grandeur of the architecture and its embellishment - and the infinite variety of texture - makes a heady impact. There is immense vigour within and between the vocal lines, and the vocal sound is one of utmost beauty. The constant fountain of elaborate sound might be overwhelming, were it not for Phillips' discerning craftsmanship.

Claire Seymour

As Peter Phillips readily points out in his programme notes, this is a setting of the mass in which the spotlight is seldom off the virtuosic top line of the choir, and his three superb trebles, Janet Coxwell, Amy Haworth and Emma Walshe are the principal virtue of this new recording. Sounding truly at home in the stratospheric heights in a way which I have not heard female trebles manage in previous recordings, they invest Taverner’s highly idiosyncratic lines with musicality and a radiant power.

Cashing in on the complete security of the top line, Peter Phillips takes the Mass setting at a more dignified pace than some previous recordings, allowing the true magnificence of Taverner’s polyphony to shine through. The result is probably the most impressive and thoroughly satisfying account of the Mass so far on record, and for those unfamiliar with the sound of high trebles, a truly thrilling experience.

D. James Ross

The Tallis Scholars celebrated their 2,000th concert this autumn and were justly praised for bringing sacred polyphony out of church and library and on to the world’s concert platforms. Here they present one of the repertoire’s most challenging works, John Taverner’s mass for the Feast of the Crown of Thorns, probably commissioned by Cardinal Wolsey to show off his chapel choir’s particularly fine trebles. They must have been impressive, judging by the dizzyingly high and virtuosic singing of Janet Coxwell and Amy Haworth, who often hover a full angelic octave above the part below. A jealous Henry VIII probably heard it in 1527, an event that might have hastened Wolsey’s downfall.

Stephen Pritchard

The Observer

One of the glories of English Renaissance music for those extraordinary sonorities in an immaculate and often breathtaking performance, the Tallis Scholars making light of the challenges of suspending those high treble lines in the heavens and balancing them against the lower parts ... it's so beautiful and such a radiant recording.

Andrew McGregor

BBC Radio 3

5*

History has not been kind to the great Tudor church composer John Taverner. He was described as a fanatical ideologue who regretted writing "Popish [i.e. Catholic] ditties" during his "time of blindness", meaning before he turned Protestant. Eventually he gave up composing to become an enthusiastic persecutor of monks, in the pay of Thomas Cromwell. In fact there's no evidence that Taverner ever seriously turned Protestant, and we know he treated the monks he was obliged to throw out of their Lincolnshire monastery with great courtesy.


Those doctrinal battles are long gone, but, as this fabulous recording shows, Taverner's music lives on, praising God in its own way. The music floats rapturously, as it should, but even so you can feel the pulse underneath. Here and there, as in the "Et expecto" passage in the Credo, there's a sudden burst of rhythmic excitement. However, the real glory of this recording is the sopranos. They sing Taverner's stratospheric high voice parts with truly staggering perfection. If they don't persuade sceptics that women can actually sing Tudor polyphony better than boys, then nothing will.

Ivan Hewitt

Daily Telegraph

Phillips and co could not have chosen a better work to celebrate passing the milestone of their 2,000th concert. Composed in the 1520s, the Missa Corona spinea is a dazzling exhibition of vocal writing, its two stratospherically high treble parts weaving mesmerising lines above a richly expressive polyphonic body. The singing is as wondrous as such great music deserves.
 

Stephen Pettitt

The Sunday Times

Prepare to leave Planet Earth for the duration of Taverner's Missa Corona spinea. Even the most diehard of the Tallis Scholars' supporters who thought they'd heard everything by now will be bowled over by this astonishing performance of an astonishing work. Whatever the occasion of the Mass's first performance - possibly an event at Wolsey's Cardinal College, Oxford in front of Henry VIII - the choir must have been extraordinary. The Tallis Scholars - as we would expect - here keep this fiendishly difficult work under immaculate, apparently nerveless, control.

Most especially the thrills come from the high-wire act performed by the Scholars' treble voices, Janet Coxwell and Amy Haworth. Great waves of sound that return the hackles on the back of one's neck to those revelatory recorded performances from the Clerkes of Oxenford in the 1970s which for many were an introduction to the glories of soaring 16th-century English polyphony. As they say, it's like falling in love all over again.

Every familiar Tallis Scholars trademark is here, of course - immaculate balance and clarity, perfect pacing and much else besides. You have to feel for the two settings of Taverner's Dum transisset Sabbatum which complete the album. Marvellous pieces both, but inevitably in the shadow of a towering masterpiece.

Andrew Green

Please reload