New works woven among Masses for troubled times

New York Polyphony

By Laurence Vittes

Taking their theme from the 16th-century Roman Catholic martyr Robert Southwell's realist poem, New York Polyphony weave a complex, clear-eyed yet still painfully beautiful tapestry of 15th- and 16th century Masses. Interwoven with brief, surprisingly compatible interludes by Richard Rodney Bennett, Andrew Smith and Gabriel Jackson, each composed in 2012 for the ensemble, the music vividly reflects what remains the universal confrontation between religious faith and political torment (Southwell, who was canonised by Pope Paul CI in 1970, had suffered drawing and quartering for refusing to abandon his religion after Henry VIII's suppression of the monasteries).

Perhaps because of its rarity (this is only its second available recording), John Plummer's Missa sine nomine, written in the previous century when Catholicism in England was still in bloom, stands out for its free response; in fact, it has much in common with the 21st-century contributions, most notably Jackson's Ite missa est, which effectively tempers its central spiritually with angular dialogues to bring the programme to a bracing conclusion. For listeners accustomed to the more ecstatic choral visions of groups such as the Oxford Camerata and Tallis Scholars, New York Polyphony's four members capture the ecclesiastical and musical impact on a more down-to-earth, personal level which benefits tremendously from BIS's audiophile sound, recorded in one of the label's favourite venues, Länna Church in Sweden. And while the conventional stereo playback is impressive, highlighted by bass Craig Phillips's opening lines in Plummer's Gloria and Credo, there is added dimensionality and tangible bloom in its SACD surround-sound configuration.