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Puer natus est

Puer natus est receives the Diapason d’Or

David Fiala, Diapason (October 2010)

Parisian music-lovers had the chance to encounter this programme last winter, in the great nave of the Couvent des Bernadins, packed to the rafters. The disc recorded soon after that concert contains the same repertoire, built around the extraordinary seven-voice Missa Puer natus est by Tallis, probably composed during the brief reign of Mary Tudor (1553-8), a period of respite for Catholicism in England. Only three of the five standard parts of the ordinary are preserved (whilst the Kyrie was seldom set to music in England, the Credo has clearly been lost). But even in this incomplete state, it stands as the most elaborate cyclic mass ever composed in England, not only in terms of its inspiration, ample proportions and the way it sounds, but also in its use of learned procedures – the duration of each note of the cantus firmus (the introit Puer natus est, sung in the tenor) is set according to its vowel (a=1 beat, e=2 beats, i=3 etc)!

Some musicologists, seeking to explain this combination of opulence and unusual complexity (even for the author of the famous 40-part Spem in alium), have linked it with the great ceremony receiving King Philip II of Spain at St Paul’s Cathedral, London in December 1554, whilst others see in it the fruits of great study. These two hypotheses underline the extent to which this Christmas mass marries luxurious sound with intellectual brilliance.

Stile Antico, the new jewel of of English a cappella singing, allows us fully to savour this fascinating combination. Besides their qualities of precision and blend, which allow each line to glisten within the densest counterpoint, they have a flair for varying the mood and delineating the great waves which bring the music to life. The remainder of the programme draws on the highly contrasted styles of Taverner (Audivi vocem for poised, high voices), White (an expansive, virtuosic Magnificat), Sheppard (the radiant Verbum caro) and Byrd (four motets, exquisite in their concision). The guiding thread of Advent and Christmas, while revelling in the freedom and daring which characterise the diverse music of the Tudor era, ensures a strong aesthetic cohesion around the sense of mystery expressed in the music, immediately striking from Tallis’ Videte miraculum which opens the disc. Amongst the maze of recordings of this repertoire, so beloved of English groups, one piece of advice: Audite miraculum – listen to this miracle.