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GRAMOPHONE ( 01/ 2019)
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Reviewer: Edward Breen

There can be few ensembles with such a close understanding of the late 15th-century music preserved in the Eton Choirbook and performances by The Sixteen have always been characterised by radiant high sopranos and deliciously bright altos supported by warmly crafted lower voices. This new album brings together Marian works from this famous manuscript with new compositions, specially commissioned by The Genesis Foundation, all united by the special sound of this ensemble.

There are three paired texts on this disc, beginning with Nesciens mater in a generous and expansive setting by Walter Lambe (1450-1504) followed by a new work by Joseph Phibbs (b1974), a contemplative homophony from which The Sixteen draw rich sonorities. The Ave Maria, mater Dei by William Cornysh (1465-1523), with all its nimble phrasing, is paired with a particularly sumptuous setting by Phillip Cooke (b1980) where two offstage sopranos swirl around a wonderfully atmospheric and transportive choral texture. Lambe’s Stella caeli is paired with an impassioned setting by Marco Galvani (b1994).

In the middle of this programme sits James MacMillan’s O virgo prudentissima, Tudor-esque in proportion and based on a surviving fragment by Robert Wylkynson (c1450-1515). These singers excel in each and every choral texture MacMillan uses, from humming to ‘heterophonic haze’. This is a sumptuous, statuesque work and an equally sumptuous and impressive performance which boasts a ravishing, high solo by Julie Cooper. The disc ends with Stephen Hough’s Hallowed, a poignant setting of four texts crossing religious boundaries in contemplation of the human experience. There is witty word-painting in his setting of ‘Staying the night in a mountain temple’ and an outpouring of joy in the Navajo Indian ‘Song of the Earth’, with its repeated phrase ‘all is beautiful’.

For me, ‘Song of the Earth’ is slightly too careful in performance – ‘beautiful’ contains an unforgiving dipthong – but the luxuriant setting of ‘Pater noster’ led by the velvet tones of Ben Davies brings this superb album to a wonderful close.

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