John Taverner: Missa Corona spinea

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

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

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

The CD is also be available from iTunes in their ‘Mastered
for iTunes’ format and in a variety of high resolution stereo and
surround-sound downloads from the Gimell website at

Claire Seymour

The Tallis Scholars. Director, Peter Phillips. Gimell CDGIM 046, CD

image_description=John Taverner: Missa Corona spinea
product_title=John Taverner: Missa Corona spinea
product_by=The Tallis Scholars. Director, Peter Phillips.
product_id=Gimell CDGIM 046 [CD]