The Liberation of the Gothic
John BROWNE (fl. c.1480-1505)
Salve Regina I [17:51]
Stabat Mater [19:36]
Thomas ASHWELL (c.1478-1527)
Missa Ave Maria [42:21]
Graindelavoix / Björn Schmelzer
rec. 2017, Church of Saint John the Evangelist, Beaufays, Belgium
GLOSSA GCDP32115 [79:48]
The first thing to realise is that really we do not know
what early Tudor polyphony actually sounded like. Certainly that is
true as far as tempo or tactus, articulation, dynamics and phrasing
are concerned. We cannot even be sure of the exact level of pitch. But
there are some things we can be sure about:
1. The music was sung by only male voices…
2. …but with boy trebles one has to be careful to allow them time
to circumvent the astonishingly high tessitura and long phrases, which
these 15th-century composers demanded indeed; English music
of this period enjoyed the higher tonal extensions.
3. They all sang from the same lectern over a huge manuscript.
4. The choirs seem to have consisted of at least sixteen personnel,
with the emphasis on the trebles. According to Hugh Benham (Latin Church
Music, 1977) there were seventeen singers at Eton in 1477.
We can ask whether Graindelavoix, a group of just eight closely recorded
male and female singers, conform to some of these requirements, and
whether it matters if they do not. Browne’s music has been recorded
by the ‘great and the good’ for over a period of at least
two decades. The Tallis Scholars, for example, on their disc devoted
solely to Browne (Gimell 036) also have women on the upper parts. So
do Tonus Peregrinus (Naxos 8.572640) and the Huelgas Ensemble (deutsche
harmonia mundi 8876548852), both just singing the Stabat Mater.
On the recent recordings on the Avie label, the choir of Christchurch
Cathedral, Oxford (obviously with trebles) have recorded the Stabat
Mater (AV2167) and both of Browne’s Salve Regina
settings (AV2359). There are others but these will suffice for now.
So in what way are these performances different?
All of the versions cited above are in what we can term the ‘Oxbridge
tradition’: purity of line (no noticeable vibrato), a tempo which
keeps the counterpoint moving and the rhythms clearly articulated, an
English vowel quality with a lack of ornamentation, and a ringing head
voice whenever possible. There could well be other qualities but these
you will, I am sure, recognise. On the whole, it would be fair to say
to say that Graindelavoix are not really interested in these traits.
Why should they be if they come from a completely different tradition?
If you know some of their other recordings, you will recognise the following
qualities, for example on their ‘Colours, Blindness and Memorial’
disc (Glossa GCD P32105): a quite slow tactus, the use of portamenti
within the polyphonic texture, ornamentation especially at cadences,
and slight randomness in the balance.
Taking tempi first: how can I prove it? Browne’s iconic Stabat
Mater in their hands lasts 19:36. The Tallis Scholars take 15:56,
Christchurch Oxford 15:16 and – amazingly – the Huelgas
Ensemble (all non-Oxbridge of course) 13:44. Similar figures can be
applied to Browne’s Salve Regina. What is the effect
of the slow tempo? Firstly, it seems that the extraordinary vital, complex
and exciting rhythms are not clear, secondly, that as a listener you
need greater powers of concentration and as a singer considerable stamina.
But on the other side of the coin, Schmelzer’s direction of Ashwell’s
Missa Ave Maria weighs in at 42:21. Incidentally, a performance
of Ashwell’s similarly vast Missa Jesu Christi by the
Christchurch Choir in 1998 (Metronome 1030/31) weighed in at a similar
Now these will largely appear to be negative qualities to many, and
indeed they often seem so to me. The singing, however, is astonishingly
virtuoso and expressive – movingly so, also allowing the passing
dissonances their full space and weight. You will never hear Tudor polyphony
sung like this. My colleague at the Gramophone magazine Fabrice Fitch
comments that “their usual ‘Corsican goatherd’ brand
of vocal timbre is somewhat attenuated if not absent altogether”.
I do not quite agree on that last point but I do agree when he says
that their “microtonal inflections are less distracting than they
have been in the past”.
Thomas Ashwell is known to have worked at Lincoln in 1508 and then at
Durham from 1513; his style is certainly expansive. John Browne is a
very shadowy figure. It is at Eton where he is assumed to have lived,
breathed and had his being. Schmelzer, who says little about the composers
but whose booklet notes take a bit of reading – a couple of efforts
may be necessary – tries to make comparisons between this early
Tudor polyphony of Ashwell c.1510 and the slightly earlier Browne c.1490,
and the amazing Chapter house at Ely Cathedral. Hence the title of the
disc. But by his own admission that was completed in 1321 during the
period we now call ‘Decorated’ Gothic. The period between
Ely’s magnificent lady chapel and Browne’s music was pierced
by, amongst many things, the Black Death which changed the world. Artists
just had a different mindset after 1360. A new, lighter and less complex
form of architecture emerged which we call the ‘Perpendicular’.
This is reflected in the more spacious music of the late fifteenth century
compared with 150 years earlier. I applaud the attempt to draw parallels
between music and architecture (is architecture frozen music?), but
this comparison seems misplaced in Schmelzer’s lengthy essay.
However, if you ask me will I be keeping this CD, the answer would be
definitely ‘yes’. I wrote above that we do not know how
this music really sounded. It is also fascinating to hear a fine vocal
group experiment in this way, which in the UK could not happen. Finally,
the disc has made me hear this music with an utterly different pair
The recording at the baroque church in Belgium allows little of the
building into its sound spectrum but the voices are well spaced and
clear throughout. All texts are provided and well translated.