John Sheppard: Media Vita in Morte Sumus

John Sheppard: Media Vita in Morte Sumus
Alamire, David Skinner
Inventa Records INV1003

John Sheppard’s (c.1515-1558) monumental antiphon Media Vita in Morte Sumus (in the midst of life we are in death) is one of the most arresting works of Tudor England. This sixteen-minute EP (recorded 2012) is freshly released and newly edited to reflect the likely liturgical practice of Sheppard’s day following research by Professor John Harper and Jason Smart. In brief, the canticle Nunc Dimitis appears immediately after the initial plainsong incipit Media Vita, following which the whole of the Media Vita antiphon is sung followed by the usual verses and short invocations without the repeats heard on older releases. The result is a distilled, striking work accompanied by a thoughtful programme note reminding us that the composer lost his life in London’s 1550s influenza epidemic.

Alamire perform Media Vita at a pitch where their tenors shine particularly brightly. In their hands this polyphony has a lower centre of gravity than the initial famous recording by The Tallis Scholars (CDGIM016) yet it retains a similar sheen. I particularly admire the pace of the opening which finds an atmosphere of wonder as the enormity of Shepherd’s polyphony is unveiled. Although I retain a fondness for the high-pitched performances of English Tudor music pioneered by David Wulstan / Clerkes of Oxenford, this new release from Alamire is magnificent and unmissably poignant in these times of pandemic.

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