John Sheppard

Sacred Choral Music

Choir of St Marys’ Cathedral, Edinburgh

 

Driving toward Wells outside Bath one summer, I first happened upon the Choir of St Marys’ Cathedral, Edinburgh, on the BBC, which was advantageous as a mood setter, as the eponymous town was once a medieval Camelot, and the choir, I subsequently learned, was and is unique in Scotland for maintaining daily choral services in the Anglican tradition.

The subject of this recording, John Sheppard, bears comparison with his near contemporary, William Shakespeare, as his biographical details are punctuated by question marks: however, unlike the bard, it is believed that Sheppard composed more than we shall ever know, and that his legacy to us might just be the tip of an ice berg.

Which renders the achievement of the Choir of St Marys’ Cathedral, Edinburgh, all the more remarkable in this recording, which – taken as a whole – bequeaths 70 minutes of scared choral music to relish, as fresh today as when it was composed at a time of unprecedented religious and societal change in Reformation England.

Gaude virgo Christiphera is rarely recorded because of a missing section, and the adapted version here is new: it is also the only surviving Marian antiphon by Shepherd, so the naturally brief sentences reinstate the fierce and passionate connection between the choir, conducted by Duncan Ferguson, and the half dozen verses.

Though I mention it first, it is by no means the pick of the crop: the opening and popular antiphon, Libera nos, salva nos, is a gilded opportunity to begin a thorough appreciation of Sheppard’s oeuvre from the outset: the range and breadth of what follows is relished throughout by a choir unafraid to be full toned and well drilled.

Sacris solemniis is auspicious as written, with three of the seven verses set polyphonically, and dramatic use of soaring plainsong, augmented by, as it were, different music.

Too often with the modern recording of choral work there is a sameness which can allow us to forget that the origins of the composition was a contemplative testament of faith, essential for an appreciation of  Sheppard because he lived in dangerous times, with the Tudors playing ping pong with Catholicism and Protestantism.

Listen to Hodie nobis caelorum rex as just one of many examples of the superb balance and appreciation achieved in these sacred vocal works by the Choir of St Marys’ Cathedral

 

 

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