John Taverner: Missa Corona spinea

The Tallis Scholars, Peter Phillips
62:07
+ Dum transisset Sabbatum I & II
Gimell CDGIM 046

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 Philips 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. The detailed programme note provides a context for the work, although it never mentions the elephant in the room – why the trebles are singing at this stratospheric height in the first place. With the current debate on performance pitch generating more heat than light he is perhaps wise simply to stick to the group’s traditional adherence to the Wulstan doctrine of upward transposition, although listeners deserve to be told that large numbers of musicologists now dismiss the practice entirely, and revelatory performances of this very work at ‘written’ pitch make a powerful case against Wulstan’s theory. So perhaps Taverner never intended his music to sound quite like this, but like the stratospheric and equally fictional Allegri Miserere the results are undeniably thrilling. The CD is rounded off by lush performances of Taverner’s two settings of Dum transisset Sabbatum, a suitably calming episode after the thrills of the Mass.

D. James Ross