In John Sheppard’s age the phrase “In the midst of life we are in death” carried significant meaning. Not only did turmoil in religion and politics serve to exaggerate an already pious fixation with death, but events such as the influenza epidemic of 1557-59 (which may have led to Sheppard’s own death) further heightened a general sense of mortality. Nearly 500 years later Sheppard’s setting of Media Vita continues to take our breath away.
This new recording is notable for its grand and spacious approach, taking a full half-hour, nearly five minutes more than Stile Antico’s award-winning account on Harmonia Mundi. Westminster Cathedral Choir’s ability to spin out the long arches of Sheppard’s polyphony places life and death in an awe-inspiring context. The distinctive Westminster timbre of the boys’ treble voices also provides a welcome point of difference to other versions.
By way of contrast the joyful Marian motet, Gaude, Gaude, Gaude Maria sheds a different light on Sheppard’s style and is peppered with plenty of characteristic harmonic false relations. Missa Cantate, one of the last great Tudor Mass settings brings this grand but moving celebration of Sheppard’s music to a close. Given that 2017 is possibly the 500th anniversary of the composer’s birth and 2018 is the 460th anniversary of his death, this is a most welcome issue in which engineering, scholarship and artistry conspire to honour a true master.