John Sheppard: Media vita

Stile Antico

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John Sheppard: Media vita Review

by Uncle Dave Lewis

John Sheppard is a mysterious figure in 17th century English music; born around the time Henry VII defeated the Scots at the Battle of Flodden Field, no record of him is known until the time of the Third Succession Act of 1543, when he is identified as a choral instructor at Oxford. In 1548 Sheppard was named a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal and worked side by side with Thomas Tallis to create both English service anthems during the reign of Edward VI and Catholic service music in the service of Mary Tudor. Sheppard's greatest achievements were made in Latin settings, and he barely survived as an outbreak of the plague in 1558 carried him off. While his surviving output is not insubstantial, none of it was published in his lifetime and many of the source manuscripts are lacking elements and require patient editorial attention. This is partly why Sheppard is considered off the beaten track while Tallis is the best-known English composer of his era. However, Sheppard's music is of equal merit, a case that singing group stile antico makes very well on its Harmonia Mundi release Media vita and other liturgical works.

The largest work on the program -- and arguably the largest English Latin-texted setting in sheer length of the 17th century -- is the title work, the enormous six-voice, 25 minutes long motet Media vita, sung here with absolute perfection by stile antico. This is only the fourth recording of the work made and it's easy to see why; it is so long and difficult for the chorus, yet when one lets it take over it is nearly as though the music itself, in stained glass colors, is rising up the sides of the walls. By highlighting this work and in using "Media vita" as the name above the door, stile antico is inviting direct comparison to the Tallis Scholars, who also used that device on the groundbreaking 1989 album on Gimell, the first ever devoted to Sheppard alone. However, among the remaining content there is nothing in common between the two discs, and the Tallis Scholars did not choose to explore any of the English anthems, which stile antico does here; "Christ rising again" is especially effective, and appears to be new to recordings. Anyone who loves Tallis, or has a deep-seated appreciation of English renaissance music in general, will not fail to find edification in this fine disc.

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