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GRAMOPHONE (05/2017)
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Reviewer: Alexandra Coghlan

After two albums of penitential motets and two Gramophone Early Music Award nominations, Contrapunctus swap shrouds for swaddling clothes in a disc of Marian music. It’s a repertoire richly served by the Baldwin Partbooks, and this collection offers just a taste of those riches, ranging from Fayrfax’s Ave Dei Patris filia – an extravagant hymn of praise to the Queen of Heaven – to the sensual love song that is White’s Tota pulchra es and Mary’s own song of joy, the Magnificat, set here by Tallis. With only eight tracks, this doesn’t look like your average disc of polyphony. But then this is anything but average polyphony: structurally these are some of the most breathtaking works of their era, the musical equivalent of the great Gothic cathedrals. The opening track – Tallis’s Gaude gloriosa Dei mater – is a 20-minute marvel, unfolding in massive contrapuntal arches that need such control and precision of pacing if they are not to collapse. Owen Rees’s instinct for longform structures is unerring, making sense not only of the Tallis but also of the disc’s two large-scale antiphons: Sheppard’s ecstatic Verbum caro and Tallis’s Videte miraculum, where a lovely sense of pulse and movement underpins even the most static of harmonic passages.

The choral sound is distinctive. Astringent countertenors pierce through sweet, rounded sopranos, and the whole is anchored by a wonderful breadth in the basses. With comparatively small numbers there’s greater muscularity here than, say, The Sixteen, which is particularly well suited to the earlier works – the Fayrfax and the austere beauty of Taverner’s Mater Christi. Just occasionally you get a flicker of shrillness in the upper voices in this highlying repertoire, a glimpse of the furious technical paddling required beneath the surface to keep these lines afloat, but it’s a small quibble. Contrapunctus remain king in a very crowded market place.


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