John Sheppard lived from around 1515 to 1558; he was thus a contemporary of the likes of Thomas Tallis, Christopher Tye, Nicholas Ludford, William Parsons and William Mundy, and of the generation after John Taverner (1490-1545) in Britain; and a rough contemporary of Andrea Gabrieli, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina and Cristóbal de Morales in mainland Europe. Yet relatively little is known about Sheppard… he lived and worked in Oxford (Magdalen) in the 1540s, and at the Chapel Royal probably thereafter until his death. Modern (performing) editions of Sheppard's works have been slower to be prepared and appear than those of many of his contemporaries. Nor has Sheppard yet really achieved much of a footing in the daily and weekly repertoires of (British) choirs and choir schools to the same extent as those Tudor contemporaries. CDs like this one ought to change that.
Sheppard's is beautiful, graceful music which balances a real fervor – excitement – for the (largely religious) power of his texts with long, subtle lines supported by colorful harmonies and textures. The present CD contains nine representative works including the "Cantate" mass. It's thought that the majority of the composer's sacred works date from his time at the Chapel Royal, later in his relatively short life – if for no other reason than that the Latin, Catholic, liturgy only became sanctioned again in the reign of Mary from 1553 until her, and Sheppard's own, death in 1558. Though Sheppard probably did not die before witnessing the reversal of this once more at the start of Elizabeth's reign.
And it's on that area of Sheppard's music which the Choir of St. Mary's Cathedral, Edinburgh, under Duncan Ferguson concentrates on this welcome CD from the enterprising Delphian label, which is based in the UK. The sequence of works is well-balanced with the Mass coming in the middle of the program. The singing style is brisk and businesslike, though it never falters and leaves room for a wide expressive range. Not all ensembles emphasize polish, sheen, even "perfect" sound as do The Tallis Scholars and The Sixteen. In such cases, a gently rough or intentionally "unfinished" delivery is more justifiable. St. Mary's Cathedral Choir occupies the middle ground. Their understanding of the music is good, their tempi convincing. They achieve a pleasing blend between the resultant emphasis on each work's architecture, structure and direction on the one hand; and the personalities of individual singers on the other. The delivery, articulation and musicality are invariably nuanced; they lovingly caress what is best in Sheppard's writing.
The Choir's style endorses the beauty of the music, then. But at the same time they give full weight to the notable dissonances which Sheppard introduced as part of the variety for which he is famous. Listen to some of the mildly chromatic phrases in the "Credo" [tr.7], for instance. For Sheppard lived and wrote at a time when theological (not to mention social, political and economic) change made life difficult for all composers of religious music. Yet he turned change to his advantage; Sheppard's style can either be seen as the end of the florid pre-Reformation world in which Taverner lived, or more that of a free spirit who never quite explored the depths and excrescences which all potentially existed as choral music developed and expanded towards the end of the sixteenth century. The Choir manages very well, though, to communicate the variety which is in the music… for Sheppard has been criticized for a lack of variety.
The singing on this CD, then, is likely to please by virtue of its genuineness and understanding of the idiom; while at the same time making the intricacies and impact of Sheppard's world very much the singers' own. You are drawn into each piece, not by surface effect. But by the performers' confidence and familiarity with it; and, dare one say, by a credible attempt to recreate (or at least respect) how the music might have sounded 450 years ago.
The acoustic of St. Mary's Cathedral, Edinburgh, is ample and resonant yet affords complete understanding of every syllable of the text. With the CD comes a very informative booklet giving background to Sheppard, his works and full texts in Latin with English translations. Fewer than half the works (the Gaude virgo Christophera, Paschal Kyrie, Adesto sancta Trinitas II and Hodie nobis caelorum rex) are unavailable elsewhere. But the CD is still one to investigate if choral polyphony appeals and/or if you are unfamiliar with the depth and beauty of Sheppard's music; or want to extend your collection. Recommended.
Copyright © 2014, Mark Sealey