CLASSICAL MUSIC / In search of the vocal past: First they were raw, then they grew too perfect to be true. Tess Knighton listens to the changing style of English choirs

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When the sacred polyphony of the 16th century was rediscovered, in the early part of the present century, it was performed according to the lights of the times. But which times? Our own age has developed a fascination with the past that demands a more thorough investigation of the original circumstances than would have been expected 80 years ago. And other questions follow: how did the revival itself influence the early music movement and the way the music is sung now? Beyond them lies the broadest issue of all, that of authenticity and, in particular, the role of recording in what can and cannot be considered 'authentic' in performance.

It's an ideal field to explore in radio terms, and Radio 3's 'Spirit of the Age' series takes it up in three programmes about the English choral tradition that begin tomorrow. With recording, we have a new layer of evidence to interpret. The early recordings of Stravinsky and Elgar, for example, are clearly a document in their own right: this is how the composer wanted it to go. Or was it? Under what conditions was the recording made? What opportunities did the composer/conductor have to retake unsatisfactory passages? To what extent was the orchestra playing to the microphone? In other words, we cannot be sure that even a document in sound represents the composer's desired realisation.

Especially in those early recordings, the microphone assumes the role of a gorgon's ear, turning a performance not exactly to stone but to an immutable state that will survive long after the performers, and along with them the knowledge of many of the conditions and compromises of a particular moment, are forgotten. Such recordings can, however, reveal a great deal about the playing style of a given period and enable us to chart the often quite profound stylistic changes that invariably occur over the course of time. Just how much the microphone has dictated these changes in more recent times is not the least of the questions raised by an aural historical survey of the English choral tradition.

Against the continuity afforded over the centuries by the gothic cathedrals that housed this tradition, it is tempting to think of it also as unbroken, persisting smoothly through the generations. There is an element of truth in this, as Timothy Day of the British Library National Sound Archive reveals in the first of the 'Spirit of the Age' programmes, but for the purposes of the story of the revival of Tudor church music and the effect of recorded sound we need only go back as far as the time of A H Mann at King's College, Cambridge (1876- 1929), and R R Terry, appointed director of Westminster Cathedral Choir in 1902. The recordings made during their age are quite extraordinary, not least for their spirit, but can they be taken to represent the English choral tradition as it would have been experienced then, live in the cathedrals?

For Christopher Page, director of the group Gothic Voices and presenter of the current series, even the discovery that such recordings existed (notably one of the Westminster Cathedral choir from 1909) sent a shiver down his spine, and hearing them was just as much of a shock. 'They are very raw,' he says, 'but then you have to remember that these were singers who had never heard their own voices on a recording before, who would have had to approach the horn as closely as they could for the sound to be recorded, but who would not have considered modifying that sound in any way from how they usually sang to fill the cavernous space of the cathedral. There would have been no retakes, no editing, no moulding of the sound based on listening to playbacks.' A recording made some years later in 1927 is perhaps more representative of the Westminster Cathedral Choir sound, but as Day puts it, 'there's nothing effete and pre-Raphaelite about that singing.'

The survey continues through recordings of Mann and King's, of Fellowes (another leading figure in the Tudor church music revival) and the Choir of St George's Chapel, Windsor, and by way of comparison the Sistine Chapel Choir recorded in 1931, to one of the earliest mixed choirs dedicated to Renaissance music, the Ambrosian Singers conducted by Denis Stevens. If there was ever any doubt that there was a distinctively English choral tradition, you only have to hear the opening chords of the Sistine Chapel Choir recording: the vibrato is so wide and the tempo so slow that pitch and rhythm are almost obliterated. One English critic at the time was apparently so appalled at the noise that he said that the boys should have been smacked and the choirmaster sacked.

So recordings can reveal pronounced differences between choral traditions in terms of their approach to the music and the sound made. What is most strikingly apparent in the English tradition is that cathedral choirs sang largely without vibrato (with all the ramifications this has for clarity of textures and precision of tuning) even at the very beginning of this century, but that the now highly-prized choral concept of 'blend' was one that only came rather later, very probably under the influence of the recording process itself. For it is clear, as Page points out, that the King's recordings of the 1960s under David Willcocks reveal 'a choir that has heard itself', that 'the sound has been honed through being able to hear its own recordings.'

This is apparent in the precision of the initial attack and of the placing of the final consonant, but above all in the overall blend of the sound. John Potter, interviewed on the second programme, was himself a King's chorister under Willcocks and is in no doubt as to how this effect was achieved: the singers were required to be totally self-effacing, to conform to a 'pre-programmed' sound, and this remains, perhaps, the single most important distinguishing feature between English and 'Continental' choirs.

There is also no question that these recordings, and those by Bernard Rose and the choir of Magdalen College, Oxford (which, says Day, 'epitomise the very best of the tradition'), were highly influential. Blend and accuracy were the twin factors that most successfully brought back to life the church music of the Tudor period (though, of course, we can never know exactly how it sounded then); they are also the qualities that work best and are most durable in recordings.

The rise of the all-professional mixed choir, and its relationship with the cathedral tradition, is also charted, starting in the second programme with David Wulstan's Clerkes of Oxenford, and following the story through the international success of groups such as the Tallis Scholars and The Sixteen - whose recordings of renaissance polyphony must be one of this country's most substantial cultural exports. The standard of these recordings in terms of precision of tuning and ensemble, and especially blend, is near-perfect (technical advances such as digital editing have also conspired to make this possible).

While they undoubtedly enhance our appreciation of the music, are they in fact moving too far away from how it originally sounded? The tyranny of the microphone (or, today, the DAT recorder) is no longer merely that of Medusa, imparting live performance with a lapidary quality, but is tending towards that, much more subtle, of Narcissus. Beauty of sound, above all, is reflected in these recordings. It is quite possible that Byrd or Tallis would be as taken aback by such performances as we are by hearing Terry and the Westminster Cathedral Choir of the 1920s.

'Spirit of the Age' is broadcast on Sundays 23 May, 6 June and 20 June at 12 noon on Radio 3