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  40:6 (07-08 /2017)
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Very highly recommended!

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Reviewer: Raymond Tuttle


Contrapunctus, on this recording, is comprised of 12 singers—four sopranos (female), two altos (male), three tenors, and three basses—although the largest number used at once is 11, and the smallest is eight. The ensemble was founded in 2010, and has recorded two other discs for Signum Classics: the predecessor to this disc (In the Midst of Life, SIGCD408), and Libera Nos: The Cry of the Oppressed (music by Byrd, Tallis, Cardoso, and Monte, SIGCD338). Both were reviewed positively by Barry Brenesal, whose territory I feel I am poaching on with this review! My excuse is that, in the past few years, I have come to enjoy choral music from the Tudor era, although (at this point, anyway), my enjoyment is more emotional than intellectual.

Those who are new to this repertoire may wonder why so many releases refer to “partbooks” in their title. At the risk of stating the obvious, a partbook is a book that contains the music for a single voice part. Generally speaking, music from the Tudor era was not preserved in manuscripts that included all of the voice parts together, as a conductor might see them, so in order to perform these works in modern times, considerable scholarship and sometimes detective work is required to make the pieces fit. The so-called Baldwin Partbooks were copied out by one John Baldwin (1560–1615) who sang in St. George’s Chapel, Windsor and later in the Chapel Royal. His efforts were not limited to vocal music: It is thanks to Baldwin that we have William Byrd’s My Ladye Nevells Booke. Because veneration of the Virgin Mary was not supported during the Elizabethan era, it is fortunate that the works on this CD survived at all. The fly in the ointment is that, in the Baldwin Partbook collection, no tenor partbook is extant. Sometimes the tenor part exists from another source, but sometimes there are no alternatives but to create a tenor part de novo, which Owen Rees has done for the Tallis Magnificat. For more information about the Baldwin Partbooks, I refer to the reader to tudorpartbooks.ac.uk/outputs/baldwin/. The partbooks themselves can be viewed online at chch.ox.ac.uk/library-and-archives/music-manuscripts.

For me, the glory of Tudor music rests in the sensation that the listener is gently bobbing in a sea of music, rocked by waves and swells of various sizes. The sense of where phrases begin and end is less clear than it is in most genres of music, and the parts overlap in a staggered fashion, so the music is equally interesting whether you attend to it vertically or horizontally. Of course the goal is to do both at the same time, which is why this music is challenging not just for performers but also for listeners.

Fortunately, Contrapunctus is an ideal ensemble for those who want to acquaint themselves with these works, both up and down, and left to right. Their performances are noteworthy for their balance, control, and harmonic clarity. Director and founder Owen Rees has handpicked singers whose voices blend with the other voices, but yet have character; in this way, the music’s textures do not become bland or homogeneous. We’re aware of the scholarship underlying these performances, and we’re also aware of the intense emotions that are being conveyed. Heart on fire, brain on ice—Contrapunctus succeeds brilliantly at making this music relevant and approachable for today’s listeners. Rees’s booklet notes are most helpful, and the recording venue—the Church of St. Michael and All Angels, Oxford—provides warmth without excessive reverberation. Very highly recommended!

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