by one of the few composers who can stand next to John Taverner in the heaven of early Tudor invention. Nicholas Ludford became organist and verger of the royal collegiate church of St. Stephen's at Westminster in 1527, a year after Taverner had been appointed choirmaster at Cardinal College, Oxford.
Although Taverner and Ludford's music is very unlike the music of their Continental contemporaries, an analogy with Jakub Obrecht may still be useful here. Obrecht brought a certain measure of discipline to the abstruse and mystical style that he had inherited from Ockeghem (his elder by some 30 years) while retaining much of that composer's exuberance. Taverner and Ludford brought needed discipline to the English florid style best represented by composers like Browne, Davy, Cornysh, and Wilkinson (who wrote in the 1480s and 1490s and whose music is preserved in the Eton Choirbook) without entirely sacrificing the characteristic rhythmic willfulness of the "contenance angloise." Taverner and Ludford treat the different voices in a texture more equally, and changes between note values are less abrupt. Both composers also use more imitation and sequences to bring greater unity to their textures.
Analogies aside, Taverner and Ludford sound fundamentally different from Obrecht and his colleagues on the Continent. This is due to their typically English reliance on full triads with emphasis on the third of the chord, and their minimal interest in any kind of dissonance other than passing notes. Taverner and Ludford do make welcome use of suspensions in cadence formulas, and Ludford will occasionally use escape notes and suspensions elsewhere without calling much attention to them, but Taverner and Ludford's main generator of small-scale tension was rhythm, not "vertical" dissonance. The canons of every type that obsessed Netherlandish composers like Obrecht in the early 16th century are totally absent from Taverner and Ludford.*
Now to the disc at hand. Ludford probably wrote his 5-voice MISSA LAPIDAVERUNT STEPHANUM for performance at his own church at Westminster, and the 4-minute paragraph that opens its Gloria is as impressive as any paragraph by Josquin, Bach, or Nielsen (three other composers who liked to construct long, purely polyphonic passages). Its five sentences - for 4 voices, 3 voices, 5 voices (grand), 5 voices (calmer), 5 voices (galloping) - are supremely well-balanced and connected, and Ludford's swaying between a kind of C major (often supported by G major) and A aeolian/minor/major here is reminiscent of Chopin's iridescent conflation of a major key and its relative minor. In Ludford's Gloria, the individual lines are constructed with such rhythmic freedom that we sometimes cannot even be sure whether we are in 2 or 3, and at the same time the music is propelled forward by an almost imperceptible shortening of note values along the way. This is composition of the very highest order, and the whole 40-minute-long mass is written at the same level. Here Ludford shows an unusual (for his time) preference for having his melodies peak on the relatively unstable 4th or 6th degree of the scale he is working with at any given moment, giving the music a restless feel. (This was often at least partially determined by the mode of the plainchant on which a piece was based, although Robert Fayrfax always seems to manage to get his tunes to peak on the 1st degree with predictably static results.) Ludford's harmonic range is wider than that of his contemporaries, and his sense of harmonic movement - the ordering of his chords, the timing of the changes between them, and the relative strength and placement of his cadences - is far more sophisticated. (And no, it is not anachronistic for me to be speaking of "chord changes" here. Perhaps because Taverner and Ludford were organists and also had a preference for complete triads in root position, they both wrote many a passage for full choir where the music really does sound like "chordal" homophony, albeit much elaborated by movement in individual voices.) Ludford's harmonic "drive" keeps the music moving towards the key structural points in the text of the mass, and is one of the things that makes his music more listenable than much other early Tudor music.
The Cardinall's Musick, despite their twee name, perform this music with all the power that it calls for. The top line is sung by 3 female mezzo-soprani, and the alto line by 3 male alti. This may or may not be terribly authentic, but I love the contrast in timbres and the clarity which results from it. There are 3 men each on the tenor, baritone, and bass lines, and the overall balance of the ensemble is exemplary. Dynamics are employed to reinforce Ludford's harmonic drive; tempi are well-judged and the recording venue is a sympathetic one.
It will not be easy for you to track down and buy this CD, but your efforts will be rewarded. Two warnings: this group seriously loves plainchant, and that means that there is a large dose of it between the mass movements on this CD. Use your stereo to program the chant away if you so desire. And the other polyphonic piece on the CD is from the Peterhouse part-books, so one of its tenor parts had to be reconstructed by its modern editor.
*There are more suspensions and strict canons in the Missa O MICHAEL, but I think that Hugh Benham's arguments against its being by Taverner are pretty strong.