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Tye: Missa Euge bone, Western Wynde Mass
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Christopher Tye flourished as a church musician in England during the mid-sixteenth century. A direct contemporary of Thomas Tallis, he held the prestigious post of Master of Choristers at Ely cathedral and successfully managed to compose music for both Protestant and Catholic services during a politically unstable time. Henry VIII was a fan, asserting, "England one god, one truth, one doctor hath for music's art-and that is Dr Tye" (Tye himself had Protestant leanings). The composer was also described as 'peevish and humoursome,' and these qualities are reflected in his remarkably individual music, characterized by unpredictable cadences and phrases of often unexpectedly startling beauty. The two major works on this recording are his masterful Missa Euge bone for six voices, and his Western Wynde Mass, probably an early work, and likely written as a complement to John Taverner's own mass based on this secular English song. The peerless Westminster Abbey Choir directed by James O'Donnell performs these sparsely beautiful a cappella works with their customary freshness and a sense of grandeur.
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The Westminster Choir is as usual stunning,as is the sound on this recording. Tye's wilful and compelling approach is obvious, the result of the Conductor, James O'Donnell, whose interpretation of the works is extremely faithful.
The Choir of Westminster Abbey, directed by James O'Donnell, are a substantial male-voice choir of treble choristers and lay vicars, with around five voices each for the alto, tenor and bass lines and rather more than that for the treble, even allowing for the two upper lines in the six-part music. Regular enthusiasts of this repertoire will not be surprised to learn that all this results in a top-heavy vocal balance, dominated by the trebles in many places in a way that will not be to the taste of some listeners. However, in compensation for that, this is by no means wishy-washy or insipid singing in the (to some) less-desirable Anglican tradition, because the choir's work does in fact carry the impact and conviction which Tye's music demands. There is certainly a sense of occasion about these performances and, in particular, the choir’s singing succeeds in conveying the scale of the Euge Bone Mass.
The first item, the uplifting motet 'Quaesumus omnipotens et misericors Deus', makes a splendid opening, and this is followed by Tye's magnificent Missa Euge Bone. This is a distinctive, eccentric setting in the composer's somewhat angular style; so it's decidedly different from much of the music of the period – but boring it certainly isn't. In fact, it gets more exciting as it goes along, and the choir responds in kind with increasingly spirited singing.
In comparison, the Western Wynde Mass doesn't appeal to me quite as much, but it's still a fine work. Of the remaining motets, 'Peccavimus cum patribus nostris' (track 12) is a fabulous piece building to a splendid climax. The closing 'Nunc dimittis' is another beautiful work, with the choir here at their very best, this time with the tenor and bass lines allowed to show off Tye's excellent part-writing for the lower voices.
Booklet notes are outstanding, extremely helpful and detailed, and all texts and translations are included. The recorded sound, in All Hallows, Gospel Oak, London, is very much in the Anglican church manner, well done of its kind but a little too 'white' for my taste. The main problem for some listeners, though, will be the high-voice domination of the vocal balance in many passages. Tye's Missa Euge Bone has been recorded several times, and at the time of writing there appear to be four versions available. Along with the present recording from the Westminster choir, I’ve also been listening to that of the Cambridge University Chamber Choir under Timothy Brown, available in both original and re-issued versions. I've also had a brief and admittedly inadequate listen to samples from the Naxos recording coupled with a Mass by Mundy, sung by the Oxford Camerata under Jeremy Summerly; frankly, that one sounds terrific and I intend to chase it up. I haven't heard the recording by the Westminster Cathedral Choir under David Hill. So it's very much a matter of opinion between the present version and the one directed by Timothy Brown. Either way it's a fabulous work and, if you don't already know it, enthusiasts of Tudor sacred music will surely want to have a recording of it in their collection.