Music for the King of Scots

Inside the Pleasure Palace of James IV
The Binchois Consort, Andrew Kirkman (conductor)

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This disc consists of the anonymous “Catherine Wheel Mass”, a modern nickname for the Missa Horrenda subdenda rotarum machinamento (previously known as Missa Deus creator omnium) and a Magnificat, also anonymous, both from the Scottish Carver Choirbook, plus Cornysh’s Ave Maria, mater Dei from the later English Eton Choirbook, prefaced by two chants, “Horrendo subdenda” itself and “Dilexisti iustitiam”. As such it is a logical successor to the Consort’s preceding release Music for St Katherine of Alexandria (Hyperion CDA68274), which I reviewed in EMR posted 31 May 2019. A seemingly huge amount of technological, architectural and scientific preparation has gone into the making of this recording, in order to give the listener an experience as close as possible to what it is thought would have been the case in the Chapel Royal at Linlithgow Palace during the 1490s, in the reign of the doomed James IV, killed by the English on Flodden Field in 1513. The project is described in detail in the accompanying booklet.

Now for the small matter of the music. During the week before the arrival of this record, I had the joy of listening to the masses and Lamentations of Alonso Lobo. The Catherine Wheel Mass is of course much earlier and is as audibly mediaeval as Lobo is audibly Renaissance. During a ruminative passage such as the opening of the Sanctus or the conclusion of the Hosanna to the Benedictus with its brief but effective moment of three against two, the Mass can sound as intense as Lobo, but some of its other music sounds clinical and mathematical. Lobo’s consistently ardent works include many passages which are intricately canonical and could also be called mathematical but in comparison, the Catherine Wheel Mass can at times sound like music which could be attractive perhaps more to musicologists, theorists and performers than to rank and file listeners. That said, there are also the likes of two stunning passages near the beginning of the Agnus: a wonderful sequence in two parts around 0’40” and the fabulously warm entry of all four parts around 0’50”. But Ockeghem it is not.

Nor is it Carver. As a member of the Carver Choir of Aberdeen throughout its existence, which included commercial recordings of two of the great man’s masses, I was bitterly disappointed to see that none of his music is included, given the presence of two works from his eponymous Choirbook. At only 55 minutes of music, there was scope for more, and the reason given for the inclusion of Cornysh’s famous motet seems like special pleading when perhaps one motive was to include a well-kent work to partner the premiere of the mass. There is nothing wrong with the recording by Cappella Nova (Gaudeamus GAU 124/6/7) of the complete surviving works of Robert Carver (1487-1565) – still the finest of Scottish composers with all due respects (and there are many of them) to Sir James MacMillan – but such is the quality of Carver’s music that there is room for more interpretations by different sorts of ensembles: for instance, it would be exhilarating to hear the Choir of St Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral, Edinburgh, tackle his Missa Fera pessima a5, not to mention the ten-part Missa Dum sacrum mysterium quoted by Sir James in his excellent fourth symphony (Hyperion CDA68317). Obviously, an ensemble such as the Binchois Consort with seven members was not going to perform O bone Iesu with its nineteen parts, but Carver’s other surviving motet Gaude flore virginali a5 could have replaced Cornysh, which receives a wiry, almost muscular performance with some quirky musica ficta, or better still it could have been added.

The Magnificat is probably English, or it could have been influenced by contemporary English style. There are two such works for four voices in the Carver Choirbook. (The other has been recorded by The Sixteen on their fine disc of Carver’s ten-part mass and O bone Iesu both mentioned above, Coro COR16051). It is an alternatim setting with the chant “harmonised” a4 according to the contemporary Scottish “fourth kind of fabourdoun”; these sections sound enjoyably like mediaeval barbershop … though of superior quality.

Scientifically this is a remarkable project and music has been chosen that is appropriate to it. The singing is technically as good as it could be. Just when the performances seem to be becoming slick, as in some frenetic sections of the Credo, this tendency is trumped by sensitive passages such as the “Dona nobis pacem” concluding the Agnus, besides others in the Credo, plus those also in the Agnus and in the Sanctus, already mentioned. Unlike the unerringly high standard of performance, the quality of the music is uneven, seeming to vary between routine note-spinning and breath-taking inspiration. “The pleasure palace of James IV” sounds somewhat tacky, but the project is driven by an admirable aspiration, at odds with this subtitle, to enable us to hear the music in the way that the monarch would have done. It is a fascinating glimpse of sacred music in Scotland between the famous Scottish Lady Mass c. 1230 (Red Byrd, Hyperion CDA67299) and the phenomenon that was, and is, Robert Carver. As such it is a project well worth investigating.

Richard Turbet

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