Monday, February 7, 2011

Polyphony in the past 20 years in England

In one of the combox comments in my last post, a comment read said "Isn't it great to be having this conversation? Imagine a liturgy discussion in the 90s comparing polyphony styles." Well because I'm a bit of a spotter on things liturgical on polyphonic I probably could, but then I generally take the point.

The thing that has led inexorably towards the kind of discussions that we are having today in the Cafe have been the developments of the last 20 years, namely the internet and cheap and accessible CDs. The internet has given people the opportunity to communicate their ideas and a space to discuss their viewpoints, and the access to cheap CDs has given a lot of people the opportunity to access polyphonic music.

In the late 1980's there was a cohort of Oxford and Cambridge graduates who had been choral scholars at the various colleges of those universities. Over about a 5 year period many of them gravitated towards the professional church and cathedral choirs of London. At the time The Sixteen and the Gabrielli Consort with the Kings Singers were the main early music groups playing to niche markets and who turned out the odd recording every year or two followed by a concert tour. With the exception perhaps of Harry Christophers, they weren't really doing anything different. Then came Andrew Carwood, Mike McCarthy, Ed Wickham and David Skinner.

Each of them formed an ensemble group with Andrew Carwood and David Skinner's The Cardinall's Musick and Ed Wickhanm's The Clerks being the longest lasting and most successful. In the early and mid 90's these groups were recording for labels like Hyperion and Deutsche Grammephone and they concentrated on the output of recordings. For the first time there were whole swathes of repertiore easily available. Of course, the Cathedral choirs would regularly put out recordings, but they typically were either pot-boiler collections of motets, hymns, and the odd mass here and there, but these groups started to produce something different - CDs containing the chant propers, mass ordinaries, and motets that would give the listener a start-to-finish experience of what a mass would have sounded like in context.

With the Cardinall's Musick there came a shift in direction. Initially an all male ensemble, they were signed to Hyperion as a "big ticket group". Hyperion had always specialised in classical recording, but this was a bit of a risk for the label as early music was thought to be a small but expanding market place. Hyperion commissioned the Cardinall's Musick to re-edit and record the entire series of Ludford's masses. It was a commercial success, and the group went on to record the entire works of Cornysh, Fayrfax, and Byrd. As another change in direction in recent years the group (along with The Clerks) have started to explore contemporary pieces.

When you read the credit lists of the singers in thse groups you start to see the same names re-appearing: Becky Outram, Carys Lane, Tessa Bonner, David Gould, Robin Blaze, Julian Stocker, Matthew Vine, Robert McDonald, Rob Evans amongst others. All expert early musicians and regular singers in some of the best church choirs in the country they bring both expertise and sympathy to their work. They all started out at roughly the same time in roughly the same places.

The prominence of polyphony and chant in the mindset of many people began long before Liturgicam Authenticam, and long before the revisions to the liturgy were in train, but its time has come and the seeds were sown by the work of thye groups mentioned above. So in short, yes we were having these discussions in the 90's and they are bearing fruit now.
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