SHEPPARD Sacred choral music
Perhaps the most striking feature of this recording from the Choir of St Mary’s Cathedral, Edinburgh, is the way in which the trebles seem perfectly integrated within the ensemble: one thinks of other choral foundations in which the distinctiveness of the boy trebles’ timbre, though distinctive and even moving, makes it stand not only above but ever so slightly apart from the men. Is it the presence of girls here as well as boys that lends extra cohesion and vigour to the top line? I think so; and if I’m right, then this is eloquent advocacy for mixed trebles. Sheppard’s trick of having them divide into a triad for the final chord of sections is reminiscent of those concluding flourishes of a fireworks display that break into a cluster. The rest of the choir is equally well matched and solid, and the whole is recorded with admirable presence and clarity; a worthy successor to this choir’s very impressive recording of Taverner’s Missa Corona spinea a few years back (3/10).
This anthology includes a few of the usual favourites (the more famous of the two Libera nos settings, for example), but the choice of relatively brisk tempi precludes the reverential feel that has become something of a cliché of Sheppard interpretations generally. All of this culminates (perhaps – the whole disc is compelling listening) in the Missa Cantate, which lays fair claim to being Sheppard’s most accomplished work in this genre: the use of sequence, reminiscent of Taverner, is particularly confident. Having expressed polite reservations about Sheppard’s music a few months back, I’m delighted to draw attention to a recording that silences (or at least moderates) those doubts; anyone who’s ever shared them should hear this.
Sheppard features prominently in The Sixteen’s latest disc, which offers new interpretations of works from the group’s back catalogue of English repertory. Their interpretation of In manus tuas (one of Sheppard’s most affecting creations) is very effective, and Gaude, gaude, gaude Maria is effortlessly eloquent. But this very effortlessness detracts at times from the sense of occasion: the first of Sheppard’s Libera nos settings is a case in point, epitomising the reverential tone I mentioned earlier. The same might be said for Davy’s monumental O Domine caeli, more polished than The Sixteen’s earlier account (7/93) but lacking the moments of tension and resolution that made it memorable (notably the build-up towards and arrival on the held chord just before the final ‘Amen’). On the other hand, the soloists do well by his Ah, mine heart, and Mundy’s Vox patris caelestis, engagingly fleet of foot, belies its length and concludes the disc very satisfyingly.