The church music of John Sheppard: The collected vernacular works – volume II

Academia Musica Choir, conducted by Aryan O. Arji
77:02
Priory PRCD 1108

The Latin church music of Sheppard, who died late in 1558, is finally beginning to receive the recognition it deserves. It suffered a setback nearly a hundred years ago when the Wall Street Crash put paid to a second series of Tudor Church Music  in which Sheppard’s music was going to feature, but a revival begun during the latter half of the twentieth century led to the publication of three volumes containing his Latin music in the series Early English Church Music, well before the notional quincentenary of his birth in 2015. Alongside this slow-burning but effective revival of his music for the Roman Catholic Church there has been parallel interest in his smaller Anglican oeuvre, leading to volume I of a pair of discs being released in 2013, with this volume II coming along just in time for the quincentenary.

The Academia Musica Choir is an interesting ensemble, being a combination of choral scholars and musicians in residence at Hereford Sixth Form College. Although this is a mixed choir, with young sopranos on the top line and a combination of males and females making up the altos, they have a sound not unlike a traditional male cathedral choir, and this is probably due to their age range. Volume I (PRCD 1081) included anthems for full choir and for men’s voices, the whole of the First Service, and all of Sheppard’s minute surviving repertory of music composed (or possibly arranged by contemporaries) for keyboard. This remains a disc to savour. Volume II contains more anthems, some carols, a reconstructed Evening Service, and the whole of the mighty and influential Second Service – another feast of music.

As early as the 1590s John Baldwin had noted that at least one passage in Byrd’s Great Service owed something to the setting of the same text in Sheppard’s Second Service. Roger Bray developed this line of thought in some sleevenotes about the evening canticles in 1996, and the following year, in an article published in Musical Times, I compared both Services in their entireties, noting Byrd’s structural and melodic debts to Sheppard – not that one would realise this from listening to Byrd’s Great Service, which is typically a work of relentless creativity and supreme confidence. Thanks to the performance on this disc, Sheppard’s Second Service emerges as a worthy inspiration and model for Byrd’s transcendent masterpiece. The seven movements, including the shortest – the Kyrie – supplied by the obscure John Brimley in the presumable absence of Sheppard’s original, are impressive as an entity, while the individual movements are just as impressive as separate pieces. Interestingly the uncredited writer of the sleevenotes seems more taken with the Evening Service for Trebles, which has been reconstructed by David Wulstan from the organ score, but for all that the writer feels that what we have of the Second Service is possibly an unpolished draft, to this reviewer it is the Second Service rather than the admittedly fine Evening Service for Trebles which is Sheppard’s Anglican masterpiece. Although necessarily not as expansive as much of his Latin music, there are still many moments of what we have come to expect of Sheppard: a case in point is the remarkable harmonic change in the Venite at the words “Forty years long”. The anthems and carols provide thinner gruel, again by liturgical and theological necessity, but I give you a new commandment  is one of the finest of all Tudor anthems.

The Academia Musica Choir gives a good account of this music. The singing is not perfect – there is for instance a particularly adolescent tenor entry in the Magnificat at the words “in God my saviour” – but it manages to be idiomatic, and this edginess combined with the accommodating acoustic of Gloucester Cathedral enables one to feel like being as close as possible to a real service without actually being present.

The sleevenotes are a major work of scholarship, and were in fact written by the editor of most of the music, Stefan Scot, who has also edited all of Sheppard’s Anglican music for a forthcoming volume in the series Early English Church Music. Stefan was responsible for discovering that the Creed from Sheppard’s First Service, on volume I, is virtually identical to the Creed in Tallis’s Mass for Four Voices; and on this recording he has included a carol with an attribution to Merbecke which he has discovered bears many hallmarks of other works by Sheppard. The project is fortunate to have the cooperation of this leading Sheppard scholar, and it is a mystery as to why his notes and editions are not credited – especially as he is ethical enough to credit Wulstan with editing the Evening Service for Trebles. Incidentally the organist who plays Sheppard’s few surviving keyboard pieces on volume I is also uncredited. For the record [sic] he is Michael Blake.
Everyone with any sort of interest in, or penchant for, or even taking a punt on, Sheppard should purchase this disc, at the least for the premiere of the complete Second Service. Although the recordings of its two evening canticles – by Christ Church Cathedral and The Sixteen – are tidier, they do not convey the sprawling magnificence of these movements. Indeed the only recording which is incontrovertibly preferable to one on this CD is Stile Antico’s version of I give you a new commandment  on their disc “Media Vita” (Harmonia Mundi HMU 807509) which is devoted to Sheppard, and which contains some of even their very best singing on record. Obviously all Sheppardista  should own both recordings.

Richard Turbet