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International Record Review - (09//2013)
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DHM 88765408852                             AVIE  AV2184

Appréciation d'ensemble/ Evaluation :
Reviewer:  Christopher Price


Thanks to Henry VIII’s and Edward VI’s ransacking of the churches and monasteries, only three large early Tudor choirbooks survive today, preserving just a small portion of the polvphony in the florid style characteristic of late fifteenth-and early sixteenth-centurv England. The Eton Choirbook is the most richly fabricated and illuminated of these and has become emblematic of the whole of this repertory . Unlike the Lambeth and Caius choir books, it contains no settings of the Mass. In fact, its original 93 works (only 64 have survived the removal of pages from the manuscript), exclusively by English composers and in many cases their only extant compositions, are almost all devoted to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Most of these are votive antiphons, one of the favourite genres of pre-Reformation English church music, written to be sung outside the liturgy of the Mass or the daily Office as a separate act of devotion to Mary usually after Compline, the final service of the day, so as to enlist her intercession.

Paul Van Nevel, Huelgas’s conductor, opens his programme notes with a ‘health warning’ recommending listening to these works only in moderate doses, as they ‘induce a degree of emotion that borders on a state of trance’ . ‘After all’ , he concludes, ‘no one would visit five cathedrals in the space of a single day.’ (He has not seen my wife on holidays.) Van Nevel is right. The supremely opulent and pungently imaginative music on ‘both Huelgas’s and Christ Church’s discs does challenge not only the ensemble, technique and stamina of the performers but also the endurance and emotions of the listener.

Van Nevel explains the purpose of Huelgas’s anthology of five works is to illustrate in particular the rhythmically complex floridity of the ‘English style’. As with most of the music in the Eton Choirbook, Huelgas’s pieces are unusually lengthy and highly ornamented. No works are included by Robert Fayrfax or William Cornish, two composers whose music in the manuscript reveals the shift of English polyphony towards the simpler, less opaque style of Continental sacred music at the very end of the fifteenth century. The music more often than not matches the literary style of the texts, which can reach a high intellectual level, with language at once elegant, eloquent, imaginative and compelling. The shortest work, at 11 minutes 36 seconds, is the five-voice Magnificat by the Lincoln-based William Horwood (or ‘Horwud’ , as the manuscript most often spells it, c. 1430-1484), which, despite its relatively old-fashioned writing, occasionally hints at Josquin amidst its ornamental swirls. The next shortest is just under 13 minutes long, Gaude virgo mater by Edmund Sturton, who flourished at the end of the fifteenth century. Of the five works on Christ Church’s disc, whose theme is the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, only one is less than 15 minutes long, Cornysh’s four-voice Ave Maria mater Dei (at just over four minutes). Yet, long or short, the works on both discs, all restlessly and exultantly virtuosic, reflect the vibrant, vividly colourful, almost ‘Mediterranean’ character of late-Medieval English Catholicism that surprised even Italian visitors of the time, before the Reformation introduced the more muted and decorous colours characteristic of English piety, both Protestant and Catholic, ever since.

… “ the Eton manuscript is a repository of a geographically diverse polyphonic repertory of Marian votive antiphons imported from all over England, which, within an overall stylistic homogeneity, display a range of individual artistic voices. Huelgas opens with a gorgeous Salve regina for seven voices by John Sutton (fl. 1476-79), his sole surviving work and my favourite on the disc, whose ‘fond style’ is marked by an unusual direct tunefulness that contrasts with, for example, the more abstract, heavenwards soaring melismatic lines and architectural conception of the programme’s concluding work, the nine-voice Salve regina by Robert Wylkynson (c. 1475 -c. 1514).



The nine-voice Salve regina by Robert Wylkynson (c. 1475 -c. 1514) … concludes Christ Church Cathedral Choir’s disc, which is its second Eton Choirbook recording for Avie, and it is also the reason for its title, ‘ Choirs of Angels’: in the manuscript, each voice is named after one of the nine choirs of Angels identified by Catholic tradition within the Celestial Hierarchy. It contrasts with the slightly less ornamented writing of three other works sung by Christ Church: Richard Davy’s Salve Jesu mater vera, Walter Lambe’s  O Maria plena gratia and the graceful miniature Ave Maria mater Dei by the elder William Cornysh, who died in 1502 . Even more impressive than all these is John Browne’s stunning Stabat mater for six voices on the Helgas disc, which Christ Church sang on its first Eton Choirbook disc in 2009.

The two recordings also present very interesting contrasts in performance. Huelgas is the first non-English choir to my knowledge to have devoted a disc to the Eton Choirbook. With 15 voices, it is smaller than the 33-voice complement of Christ Church and its upper voices are exclusively adult women save for a single countertenor, by contrast with Christ Church’s 14 boy trebles and four countertenor altos. Huelgas’s s appear to reflect the prescribed practice for the daily so-called Salve ceremony immediately after Vespers in fifteenth-century Eton College, when its 16 choristers and four singing clerks ( the clerici generosi) were required to sing polyphonic votive antiphon (or, during Lent, the Salve regina) before an image of the Blessed Virgin in the chapel. On the other hand, singers from among the College’s 70 scholars were sometimes required to reinforce the choristers and clerks, justifying Christ Church’s larger numbers.

The Europeans sing with perfect ensemble and full technical command of the music’s many intricacies, allied with a full-blooded warmth and electrifying energy that distinguishes them from the more rarified sounding English cathedral and college choirs. They also demonstrate the technical superiority of trained adult women over physically immature and comparatively less experienced boy choristers: the brilliant female sopranos render their long, soaring and intertwining melismatic excursions with effortless control and exhilarating muscularity. And yet, though sounding more delicately translucent and slightly less focused from top to bottom and despite slightly slower tempos, Christ Church proves again and again that its boys are up to the technical challenges thrown up by the music and it cedes nothing to Huelgas in the emotional depth of its readings. Just occasionally there are moments of weakness, but these are more often from the tenors and basses than the trebles, such as the brief wobbliness of the lower voices near the beginning of Richard Davy’s hitherto unrecorded Salve Jesu mater vera. These are only an insignificant blemish in the Choir’s otherwise superb tour de force under its insightful and disciplined director, Stephen Darlington. No such weaknesses appear in its performance of the longest work in the programme, the almost 21-minute-long O Maria plena gratia for six voices by one of Eton’s ‘in-house’ composers from 1467 and 1476, Walter Lambe (c. 1450-c. 1504), which the choir sings with unflagging radiance and poise.

Owing to the almost complete absence of overlap between the two discs, there is little need to choose between them: this is lucky because both deserve an ‘outstanding’ rating.

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