In 1973, conductor Andrew Parrott founded a chorus in London, naming it the Taverner Choir in honor of the great composer of Tudor church music, John Taverner. As the years passed, the choir was supplemented by the Taverner Consort, a small vocal ensemble, and the Taverner Players, an instrumental group capable of fielding anything from a consort of Renaissance cornetts and sackbuts to a full-fledged baroque orchestra.
This group, which will be featured Friday night at the Washington National Cathedral and tonight on WETA-FM's Millennium of Music program, has evolved into one of the world's leading exponents of music composed in the two centuries between Claudio Monteverdi and George Frideric Handel. Both extremes of that tradition are represented on a pair of current recordings on the EMI Reflexe label, and when listening to them side by side, one gets a fascinating view of the continuities and contrasts from the beginning to the end of the baroque era.
Handel's "Israel in Egypt" (CDCB 54018, two CDs with libretto) is a work for virtuoso chorus, notable not only for the vivid sequence of numbers describing the plagues of Egypt, the parting and crossing of the Red Sea and the destruction of Pharaoh's army but also for the extraordinary introduction (a lamentation for the death of Joseph) and the epilogue, a song of triumph and thanksgiving for the deliverance of Israel. Its popularity is, quite rightly, second only to that of "Messiah" among Handel's oratorios, and Parrott's eloquent, well-styled interpretation shows why it is so well loved.
Monteverdi's "Mass of Thanksgiving" (CDMB 49876, two CDs with libretto), dating from 1631, reconstructs another prolonged, brilliant and superbly varied song of deliverance, marking the end of a plague that struck Venice in that year. The score (made up largely of music that has been preserved in other works, probably recycled) is conjectural but convincing. The music is credited to "Monteverdi and His Contemporaries," in recognition of the instrumental sonatas by other composers played at appropriate points in the ceremony and the seven-voice Credo of Giovanni Rovetta (very close to Monteverdi in style) that was used to supply some of the music. Monteverdi's predecessors might also be credited for the limpid plainchant of the "ordinary" passages scattered through the ceremony, which contrast effectively with the elaborate vocal polyphony, the organ music, trumpets and drums, violins and chitarrones. There are even fireworks (period-flavored fireworks, naturally) as there were at the original performance in November 1631, to enliven this recording and make it a sort of baroque "1812" Overture.
Like the music, the acoustics are reconstituted. The recording was made in a London studio, but the producer and engineers have done some remarkable work with microphone placement to create an illusion of the vast, reverberant spaces of St. Mark's Basilica, Venice, where the ceremony was first held. The acoustic impact is particularly impressive through headphones. "Israel in Egypt" is splendid, but if I had to choose between the Monteverdi and Handel items, Monteverdi would be my choice. Early Music Those who enjoy Parrott's reconstitution of the 1631 Thanksgiving Mass may enjoy another St. Mark's ceremony, the coronation of Doge Marino Grimani in April 1595, with vocal and instrumental music by Giovanni and Andrea Gabrieli performed by the Gabrieli Consort and Players directed by Paul McCreesh. The acoustics (it was recorded in an English monastery) are impressively spacious, and the music has wonderful grandeur, though it is not quite equal to Monteverdi's.
Another effort along the same lines (Tactus TC 53012001) reconstitutes the vocal and instrumental music for the wedding of Cosimo de Medici and Leonora da Tolleto, Florence 1539. This is an appealing way of constructing a coherent program of early music, and the performance by a group of Italian specialists is good.
Renaissance choral music performed without special effects but nonetheless beautiful can be heard in these CDs: Chandos CHAN0513, a selection of Thomas Tallis (including his "Spem in Alium" and "Lamentations of Jeremiah") sung by the Sixteen Choir (obviously augmented for "Spem in Alium," which has 40 parts. Deutsche Harmonia Mundi 77066-2-RG, a Requiem, Magnificat and motets of Orlandus Lassus, remastered from an analog recording by the London Pro Cantione Antiqua with instrumental accompaniment. Hyperion CDA66321/2 (two CDs with booklet), with Lassus's four-part Requiem, Lamentations of Jeremiah and Music for Easter Sunday performed by the Pro Cantione Antiqua. Gimell CDGIM001, Palestrina's "Missa Benedicta es," performed by the Tallis Scholars.
Several other recent recordings neatly avoid the cliches of early music. Philippe Le Chancelier (ca. 1165-1236), was chancellor of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris and also an accomplished Latin poet and composer. His verse is intricately structured and tightly packed with symbols; his music is well-crafted, in a style that sometimes recalls Leonin and Perotin, and the performance of selected works by Sequentia (Deutsche Harmonia Mundi 77035-2-RC) is refreshing.
So is "On the Banks of Helicon: Early Music of Scotland," performed by the Baltimore Consort (Dorian DOR-90139). This disc typifies the group's best qualities, including the zeal and curiosity with which it seeks out fresh repertoire and the stylish vigor (all the more attractive for its occasional rough edges) with which it performs. It is good to hear a bagpipe, expertly played, among the lutes and viols; the 22 selections (mostly unfamiliar and ranging in date from the Elizabethan to the Georgian era) are a delight, and the recording is excellent.
"Over the Hills and Far Away" (Albany H103) is an expertly researched and performed selection of music (native and imported) that could have been heard in Colonial Annapolis, including some Scottish melodies (only a slight duplication of "On the Banks of Helicon"), theater songs, including a medley from "The Beggar's Opera," tavern songs, religious music, and such local material as the "Annapolis March" and "As I Was Going to Baltimore." David and Ginger Hildebrand, performers and musicologists, with the help of a few musical friends and some fine old instruments, have done a first-class job on this disc. They can be contacted at P.O. Box 190, Arnold, Md. 21012, for further information or to order copies if you can't find them in a store.