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Choir of New College Oxford & Robert Quinney - Sheppard: Media vita - All Music

4.5*

The music of Renaissance composer John Sheppard (ca. 1515-1558) is not often recorded. Unlike that of his Continental contemporaries, it consists of large edifices not much delineated into clear structures, and when listened to cold, it tends to sound like an undifferentiated blob of sound. This release by the New College Choir, Oxford, offers an ideal way of getting deeper into Sheppard. For one thing, the choir was around in something like its current form when the music was new; of course, such things are hard to pin down, but in these performances, there is a sense of a tradition being realized. Second, the choir's boy singers are not the smoothest in existence, but it doesn't matter: they are confident (they are able to sing from Renaissance partbooks at sight), attractively flowing in terms of rhythm, and have a very distinctive sound in which individual voices pop out from time to time, as if sparkling. Third, the sense of authenticity is enhanced by notes that relate features of the individual pieces to specific developments in the turbulent English history of the time. The final work on the program, and the highlight, is Sheppard's gigantic Media vita in morte sumus. Clocking in at more than 24 minutes, the work is often one of the tougher ones for the listener, but here, it proceeds clearly, building huge edifices on top of the clear cantus firms. Recorded not at the New College Chapel but at the ideally spacious St. Michael's Church, Oxford, this is a superb early English Renaissance release.

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All Music
14 December 2020