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Music from the Eton Choirbook
Walter LAMBE (1450/51?-1504 or later)
Nesciens mater a 5 [6:05]
WILLIAM, monk of Stratford (fl. c.1500)
Magnificat a 4 [14:44] Anon - plainchant
Nesciens mater [0:47]
Richard DAVY (c.1465-1538)
Passio Domini in ramis palmarum a 4 (exc) [21:21]
John BROWNE (fl. c.1480-1505)
Stabat mater a 6 [16:14]
Hugh HELLYK (fl. late 15th C)
Magnificat a 5 [13:53]
Robert WYLKYNSON (c.1475/80-1515 or later)
Jesus autem transiens/Credo in unum Deum, canon a 13 [5:57]
Tonus Peregrinus/Antony Pitts
rec. 11-14 July 2011, St Alban the Martyr, Holborn, London, UK. DDD
NAXOS 8.572840 [79:00]



 
The choir books of the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance - soon to be superseded by part-books - are, in the words of Philippe de Montebello, long-time director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “one of the great legacies of Western culture”(quoted from Barbara Drake Boehm, Choirs of Angels: Painting in Italian Choir Books, 1300-1500, 2008). The claim is justified by more than merely the music they preserve. The best of the Choir Books are sophisticated works of art in terms of all the skills of book production, especially in relation to the wonderful illuminations they often contain. They marry the aesthetic interests of eyes and ears in a thoroughly distinctive fashion. In some future multimedia world it will surely be possible to look at digital images of the relevant pages as we listen to the music. Yet even such an experience would not fully prepare one for the real thing, for the delightfully shocking physical presence of these books. Designed to be visible simultaneously to twenty or more members of a choir, these are huge creations. I remember very well my first startled encounter with a collection of such choir books, in the Piccolomini Library of Siena Cathedral. Many of these books are a yard high and more than a yard wide when opened. To my eyes at least, no digital system of reproduction has yet proved able to do full justice to the intensity of colour in the finest of their painted images.
 
The religious switchback ride of sixteenth century England led to the destruction of many of its choir books. One of the most important and earliest surviving exemplars is the Eton Choir Book. It was compiled at the very beginning of the sixteenth century, probably before 1505. As it now stands, in a binding some fifty years younger, it consists of 134 folios. When complete it was made up of 224 folios; an original index tells us that it contained 93 compositions. Some 29 of those have been lost and a number of others are incomplete. Each page is about two feet high and each opening is almost a yard across. Some page images can be seen at the website of the Digital Image Archive of Medieval Music, publishers of a slightly size-reduced facsimile of the manuscript. There is little or no exaggeration involved in saying that this manuscript is one of the greatest of English cultural treasures. Leaving aside for the moment, the beauty of the manuscript, this is, after all our only source of knowledge for many fine pieces of music; indeed, some composers (such as Hugh Kellyk) would effectively have vanished from the record but for its survival. It is a major source for knowledge of important figures such as John Browne (represented by 10 pieces), Richard Davy (9 works) and Walter Lambe 8).
 
Music from the Eton Choir Book has been fairly extensively recorded in recent years, most notably by Harry Christophers and The Sixteen in an outstanding series of 5 Coro CDs. This sampler by Tonus Peregrinus is on a par with the best of previous recordings and, by accident or design, involves relatively little duplication with those previous recordings. Unless you insist on boys’ voices rather than those of women, this mixed-voice choir deserves your surely delighted attention. We get to hear such fascinating works as Davy’s St. Matthew Passion - or what remains of it, the opening pages being amongst the material lost. Its treatment of its text is subtle and expressive. The sheer beauty of much of its polyphonic writing is notable. Wylkynson’s extraordinary 13-part canonic setting of the Apostle’s Creed is also memorable. Other rare delights include Browne’s powerfully expressive Stabat mater, simultaneously redolent of the affective spirituality of the middle ages and, at moments seeming to anticipate a kind of madrigalesque word-painting. Kellyk’s beautiful Magnificat isone of the 24 Magnificats included in this particular choir book. It makes one wonder how much more lovely and profound music by this composer we have lost. There are reminiscences of Dunstable in the setting. In this performance the alternation of choirs of high and low voices works very well.
 
At every turn these are fine performances, excellently recorded by Geoff Miles using new, experimental microphones with happy results. The neums of medieval manuscripts are not without their difficulties and ambiguities of interpretation to put it mildly. Almost without exception the choices made by Pitts and his choir are thoroughly satisfying. Their translations of the manuscript notes into sound repeatedly merits - if I may be allowed a ponderous pun - the epithet ‘neuminous’.
 
Glyn Pursglove

See also review by Johan van Veen