Wonderful readings of two standards.

TAVERNER: Mater Christi Sanctissima; Missa Mater Christi sanctissima; Mass ‘The Western Wynde’ – Westminster Abbey Choir/ James O’Donnell – Hyperion CDA68147, 58:36 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] *****:

John Taverner was one of those transitional composers who straddled the fence from Catholicism to Protestantism, but unlike his confrere William Byrd, his tendencies leaned naturally to the latter. Therefore, when he was accused of Lutheran leanings when he composed his Western Wynde Mass to the tune of the same name, eyeballs were raised from the then Catholic ruling powers. However, since not much credence was given to what artists said or thought, no penalties were allocated. “Western Wynde” was of course a very secular song, and at this point of time the idea of incorporating the vagaries of the world into such a sacred text was something questionable from many sources. However, Taverner, far from being wrong in this, was to set a trend that would carry over with many other composers, when secular songs became fair game for religious inspiration.

The standards are more in place with the Christi Sanctissima Mass, based not on a song but on a polyphonic motet. Both it and the Western Wynde are sans “Kyrie” and begin with rousing “Glorias”, but the “Christi” mass is particularly stirring, demonstrating the amazing way that Taverner could swing back and forth according to the material at hand. This is a pure polyphonic marvel, ranking with the greatest of the Renaissance masses (though it must be stated that the work is incomplete – missing tenor part books – and has been finished to authoritative excellence by Francis Steele), originally composed for Cardinal Wolsey’s brand spanking new foundation of Cardinal College – later Christ Church.

O’Donnell and his Westminster forces continue with unabated brilliance in their Hyperion recordings. Each of these works is decently served on records with seven or eight recordings, but there is something special about this venue and this choir. The sound is vibrant and resonant, with the choir second to none.

—Steven Ritter