Those who take seriously the task of writing about music performances are continually confronted with the challenge of finding words to describe the indescribable. Often, the best that can be done is only adequate; and too often the words—in the guise of colours or shapes or physical textures—are poor substitutes for depicting combinations of sounds and their effect on a given listener. However, in the case of John Sheppard’s Media vita, especially as heard on this excellent recording, there is one word that immediately comes to mind—‘ethereal’—a word overused and often misused, desperately or lazily plucked out of the air for lack of a truer, more perspicuous alternative. But here, nothing else seems better to describe the effect of the soaring lines, expansive harmonies, and sensuously slow-moving, six-part polyphony. You can’t experience the full effect in a few seconds of casual listening; this is music that requires dedicated attention and time, free and uninterrupted—and ears and mind open to being moved, mesmerized, uplifted.
Although the notes to the recording make no mention of it, the Media vita is an antiphon sung during Lent that begins with the momentous words 'In the midst of life we are in death'. By any standard it is a monumental work, in this performance lasting 30 minutes—but rather than seeming long or redundant, it has a cumulative power that’s built and sustained through every bar of music. Media vita has been recorded before, notably in excellent versions by The Tallis Scholars and Stile Antico, but this one is equally distinguished and an easy first choice.
Usually I find the Westminster Cathedral choir’s trebles a bit too bright, slightly harsh (I prefer the more mellifluous trebles of Oxford’s New College and Christ Church choirs)—but not here. This treble sound is, well, nothing less than ‘ethereal’; I can’t come up with a more appropriate word. Nor can I for the rest of the music on this unforgettable program. The Mass, which the notes aptly describe as a ‘masterpiece’ whose plainchant model is unknown, deserves all the attention it can get—as does this recording, a masterpiece itself, the finest I’ve heard from this choir.