Lux fulgebit: The mass at dawn on Christmas Day

St Mary’s Schola Cantorum, David J. Hughes, conductor & organist
70:04
No label, no number.
William Byrd Quem terra, pontus; Alfonso Ferrabosco the Elder Mirabile mysterium; Walter Lambe Nesciens Mater; William Rasar Missa Christe Jesu

The Missa Christe Jesu is the sole surviving work of William Rasar, who was a clerk at King’s College, Cambridge, until about 1515. This means that we know one thing about him rather than nothing. The latter is not unusual for composers whose works, like this piece, survive in the Peterhouse partbooks, where it lacks its tenor part. But in addition to actually knowing something about the composer, his single surviving work exists complete, as it is also in the Forrest-Heyther partbooks. All the more surprising that, with the current flurry of interest in Peterhouse repertory, this is the premiere recording of Rasar’s mass. It is a revelation. The choir to reveal it to the interested musical public is St Mary’s Schola Cantorum, a professional quintet which sings for services at St Mary’s Roman Catholic Church, Norwalk, Connecticut. Now, I am rather vain about my knowledge of American geography, but I have humbly to confess that I had never previously heard of Norwalk, which is situated between New York and New Haven. I am delighted to have made good my ignorance in the context of this premiere commercial recording of a unique work of the highest music quality.

The mass is sung in the context of the complete service, with bells, a celebrant and appropriate plainchant. As usual with English masses of the period there is no polyphonic Kyrie, but unusually the entire text of the Credo is set. The musical idiom is perhaps best described as Eton Choirbook meets Franco-Flemish. That said, the Gloria is almost alarmingly abrupt, seemingly over as soon as it has got going. Subsequent movements are less succinct, but overall the mass is by no means expansive in style. Nevertheless there is much fine music for the listener to enjoy and the singer to relish. The offertory motet is what would seem to be the premiere recording of Mirabile mysterium, a fine work by the elder Alfonso Ferrabosco which the Schola has done well to bring into the public domain. There are two communion motets. The first is Byrd’s three-part Quem terra, pontus. Although this is only its second complete commercial recording, the last of its five sections is a setting of Gloria tibi trinitas  well known as an anthem in English cathedrals and similar choral foundations at men-only evensongs when the layclerks sing without the trebles. The other is Walter Lambe’s five-part Nesciens mater, one of the most popular pieces from the Eton Choirbook.

The performances by the five voices are interesting, possessing more an intimate quality of a chamber quintet and certainly not raising the roof as some choirs can and do in this repertory. The timbre of each voice is clearly audible, but they blend well enough, and manage to differentiate the intimacy of the sections for reduced scoring with the full sections. The individual singers certainly do not have the sound of regular early music singers, but they are sensitive to the idiom of the music. In a critical review I feel I have to observe that the bass can sound a trifle plodding, though this does not impede the momentum of the music. Indeed, it is these very qualities, outside the regular early music box, that convey the aura of a real liturgical ensemble singing real liturgical music. Much as I admire the sheer professionalism of the recording by The Cardinall’s Musick of Byrd’s Quem terra, pontus  I prefer on balance the three gentlemen of the Schola’s more engaged, almost effortful performance. Particularly to savour is the balance of the voices in the final cadence, with its fleeting illusion of a beautifully timed and placed first inversion chord.

The notes are perfectly adequate and presented in a booklet of excellent quality. The celebrant’s voice is thoroughly indifferent but this could be said to enhance the authenticity of the recording. There are also two organ improvisations which did nothing to increase this listener’s enjoyment of the proceedings, but neither of these aberrations should deter any prospective purchaser from supporting this admirable initiative, and neither of them will impede the enjoyment of this glorious music and its committed and spiritual performance by the Schola.
For all its lack of a label or number, this disc can easily be obtained over the internet via CD Baby. I even received an amusing message to tell me that my copy was on its way.

Richard Turbet