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Give Early Music a Try: John Browne and the Eton Choirbook

by Brian Wilson

The Eton Choirbook consists of a collection of choral works, dating from around 1500-1505, intended for use at Eton College, where it has miraculously survived the destruction of such collections at the Reformation. The Choirbook has been edited for the Musica Britannica series by Frank Lloyd Harrison (MB 10-12, published by Stainer & Bell). The record companies, too, have played their part over the years in bringing us some of the best music from this wonderful collection – none more so than Gimell and Coro in the case of the six CDs which I am recommending here.

If you asked even the musically knowledgeable to name a composer represented in the Choirbook, I doubt if you would hear the name of John Browne – you might even be asked what The Eton Choirbook was! Had you put the question to me a few days ago, I’d have named Richard Davy, whose St Matthew Passion on an Argo LP long ago was my introduction to the Choirbook, together with William Cornyshe and Robert Fayrfax, whose music turns up from time to time in anthologies.

I’d forgotten all about John Browne, though I’ve owned the Coro CD of The Rose and the Ostrich Feather, on which his music is featured, for quite some time, and despite the fact that his music is – or should be – of major importance. Playing that CD again reminded me that I had intended some time ago to order the rest of the series.

As well as that CD, Volume 1 of a series of five which Harry Christophers and The Sixteen recorded for the defunct Collins label – now available on their own Coro label – Browne features on two others, Volume II, The Crown of Thorns and Volume IV The Flower of all Virginity. As Musicweb appears to have reviewed only the second CD, it seemed to me that we ought to proclaim the virtues of the whole series. At the same time, I wanted to compare these recordings by The Sixteen with Gimell’s recording of five pieces by Browne, performed by Peter Phillips and The Tallis Scholars – another ‘must buy’ that I somehow hadn’t got round to.

The brief details of these recordings are:

Volume 1: The Rose and the Ostrich Feather

Robert FAYRFAX Magnificat; Richard HYGONS Salve Regina; Edmund TURGES From stormy windes; John BROWNE Stabat iuxta Christi crucem; ANON. This day dawes; William CORNYSH Salve Regina Coro COR16026 [62:34]

Volume II:The Crown of Thorns

Richard Davy Stabat Mater; John Browne Jesu, mercy, how may this be? William Cornyshe the elder Stabat Mater; Sheryngham Ah, gentle Jesu; John Browne Stabat Mater CORO COR16012 [64:35]

Volume III: The Pillars of Eternity

Richard Davy O Domine cæli terræque creator; William Cornyshe Ave Maria, Mater Dei; Richard Davy; Ah, mine heart, remember thee well; Walter Lambe Stella cæli; Richard Davy Ah, blessed Jesu, how fortuned this? Robert Wylkynson Jesus autem transiens/Credo in Deum; Salve Regina CORO COR16022 [61:14]

Volume IV: The Flower of All Virginity

Hugh Kellyk Gaude Flore Virginali ; Anonymous Ah, my dear, ah, my dear Son! John Nesbett Magnificat ; Robert Fayrfax Most clear of colour; John Browne Salve Regina; Anonymous Afraid, alas, and why so suddenly? John Browne O Maria Salvatoris Mater CORO cor16018 [62:52]

Volume V: The Voices of Angels

Walter Lambe Salve Regina; William Monk of Stratford Magnificat; John Plummer Tota Pulchra es; Richard Davy Salve Regina; John Plummer Anna Mater Matris Christi; Richard Davy In Honore Summæ Matris CORO COR16002 [61:59]

All the above performed by The Sixteen/Harry Christophers and also available as a 5 CD set for the price of 3 (COR16040).

Music by John Browne from the Eton Choirbook

Salve Regina I; Stabat iuxta Christi crucem; Stabat mater; O regina mundi clara ; O Maria salvatoris mater

The Tallis Scholars/Peter Phillips

GIMELL CDGIM036 [71:25]

My colleague JP welcomed the return of The Sixteen’s recording The Crown of Thorns to the catalogue: "[an] invaluable disc ... it cannot be too highly recommended" – see review – but the remaining volumes of this series seem to have slipped through the Musicweb review net.

Just one small corrective to JP’s review: he surmised that as the recording venue ‘Orford’ might be a misprint for ‘Oxford’; St Bartholemew’s [sic] Orford has for some time been a favourite recording location for Chandos as well as The Sixteen.

JF gave an even more enthusiastic welcome to the Gimell recording: "Near perfect music from the late fifteenth century sung in glorious style. A most moving and satisfying disc." – see review.

I readily concur with both colleagues. Much more difficult is the task of choosing between these two first-class sets of performers – all the recordings named above have been constantly in play in our household since I started this comparative review, and the Gimell recording has joined their version of two Josquin masses which I recently reviewed with enthusiasm – see review – on my mp3 player for use in the car.

I’ve concentrated on John Browne because his music is common to both recordings and because the compilers of the Choirbook thought his O Maria Salvatoris Mater sufficiently superb to place it at the head of the collection. His six-part Stabat mater and Stabat iuxta Christi crucem are at least equally fine – all three works are recorded by both groups – yet we know very little about who he was: look in Grove or the Oxford Companion to Music and you’ll find that there is little more information than would cover the proverbial postage stamp. The notes in the Gimell booklet compare him, without exaggeration, with Monteverdi and Palestrina; his music is not only uplifting – just about everything by the other composers on the Coro recordings is, too – it arguably shows greater talent than any English composer before Tallis: I nearly wrote ‘before Taverner’, but I think Browne in some respects outdoes Taverner and Sheppard, much as I love their music.

The following table indicates the availability and timings of the two sets of performances of the John Browne items:

 

Salve Regina

Stabat iuxta

Stabat Mater

O Regina mundi clara

O Maria Salvatoris Mater

Jesu, mercy

The Tallis Scholars

13:25

12:25

15:56

13:55

15:44

-

The Sixteen

11:23

10:59

13:31

-

12:47

09:32

Harry Christophers’ timings are consistently faster than those of Peter Phillips – indeed, his tempo for the Stabat mater has become faster since his own earlier recording of that work on Meridian, when he clocked in at 15:17. My slight preference is for the more measured approach adopted by The Tallis Scholars, which pays off superbly in O Maria Salvatoris Mater from the opening of the Choirbook, though it is generally hard to choose between the slightly greater thoughtfulness of their approach and the marginally more energetic flow of The Sixteen.

Those who are bothered by such things will deprecate both directors’ use of female voices in this repertoire and will probably regard it as heretical if I say that I truly did not find this worrying. What matters more is the accuracy and dedication of the singing – two guaranteed features of both groups.

I usually come off the fence, but this time I’m going to do my really annoying trick of wanting all six CDs. I can hear you thinking that it’s all right for reviewers, who get free review copies or free access to downloads, to want the best of both worlds, but I would be genuinely loath to have to ditch any one of these recordings – and, remember, I did spend my own hard-earned dosh on Volume I of the Coro series. Even between theme, they don’t offer all Browne’s nine pieces in the Choirbook; it would have been more satisfactory had they complemented each other, but I realise that record companies can’t operate on such a non-commercial basis. Coro don’t include O regina mundi, a really fine piece, and Gimell would not quite have had enough space to include Jesu, mercy on their all-Latin disc. The vernacular music is not actually from the Choirbook, in any case, though Coro don’t acknowledge the fact.

Some may be surprised to see how much of the material on the Coro recordings is in the vernacular. There was, in fact, a well-developed English vernacular tradition of religious lyrics, much of it related to the Crucifixion or in praise of the Virgin Mary and often, though by no means exclusively, translated from Latin. There are several easily and inexpensively obtained collections of these lyrics – collections from Norton, Faber and from the TEAMS Medieval Institute (in book form and online free of charge) should suffice those with a general interest; the Clarendon Press editions by Carleton Browne are more for the specialist. Some of these lyrics, of course, though not any of those included here, have been set by modern composers as Christmas music. Jesu, mercy is a carol only in the original sense of that word.

While performers can make a very fair shot at pronouncing Latin as it would have been pronounced in the early 16th century, we are more in the dark about English – we just don’t know how far advanced the Great Vowel Shift, the process by which English vowels became diphthongs, was at any time, though it is now believed that the process happened more rapidly than was once thought. The Sixteen employed a pronunciation coach but, happily, they do not attempt anything like the kind of Mummerset that sometimes passes for early-modern English on recordings.

The Coro recordings, of course, contain more than just Browne’s music – indeed, some of the works, such as John Plummer’s Anna, Mater Matris Christi (Volume V) pre-date the composers represented in the Eton collection, though his music is still welcome despite masquerading under slightly false pretences. I started off by saying what a remarkable composer John Browne was, but the same is almost equally true of Richard Davy, William Cornysh and Walter Lambe. None of them may quite equal the achievements of such internationally-renowned predecessors as Dunstaple and Frye, but they are not far short – and who knows what treasures by them may have existed only in other collections which were lost at the Reformation: the Eton collection survived by the merest chance.

What a pity that the English reformers didn’t share Luther’s love of music; Cranmer, whose prose translations and adaptations of Latin are a wonderful part of our linguistic heritage, had a tin ear for poetry – just look at his attempt in the Ordination Service to translate the Veni, creator Spiritus, still preserved in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer as an alternative to the much better version prepared for that revision.

All these recordings are also available as downloads – the Tallis Scholars version from www.gimell.com and the Coro recordings from classicsonline.com, theclassicalshop.net, iTunes and eMusic.com. Gimell offer their downloads in mp3, CD-quality and studio-quality versions – this last, in 24-bit sound, superior to the commercial CDs. theclassicalshop offers the Coro recordings in 320kbps sound, as does classicsonline; though the latter sell themselves short by claiming only 192kbps quality, my computer confirms that they are at 320. iTunes offer these, and most of their Coro downloads, in the superior iTunes plus format. Surprisingly, none of their versions of The Tallis Scholars’ recordings seem to be offered in the plus format.

I tried the downloads of two volumes from theclassicalshop and two from classicsonline and thought them almost the equal of the CD of Volume I. There was never any sense that the music was too much for its carrier, as so often used to be the case with LPs of Tudor polyphony, with even the best cartridges tending to break up in the groove – you won’t find me nostalgic for the days of vinyl. I did think, however, that the wma version of the Gimell recording had a slight edge over mp3 – there was never any sense that this was in any way inferior to CD sound – and I recommend that you go for this version if you choose to download. I didn’t try the eMusic versions but have usually found these to be perfectly satisfactory – and they have very promptly added bonus tracks to my account in compensation for the occasional defect.

JF spoke of the sheer pleasure of handling the Gimell CD. A hand-labelled CDR can never provide that kind of pleasure, but the printable booklet which comes with the download is very elaborate – even including an illustration from the manuscript for back-to-back insertion with the rear insert. You’ll need to have a transparent CD tray for this to be effective, otherwise you’ll miss the illustration of the superb opening page of the Choirbook with John Browne’s majestic music at its head. Chandos’s theclassicalshop offers the almost equally attractive Coro booklets, though without any rear tray inlays. Both sets of notes are detailed and informative and both contain full texts and translations. Classicsonline and eMusic offer only cover shots of the Coro recordings.

The Gimell recording is very well filled, the Coro CDs only slightly less so. If you buy any one, I can almost guarantee that you’ll want them all – in which case, let me point out, in case it has escaped your attention, that the complete 5-CD Coro set (around £28-£30 in the UK) is much cheaper than buying the individual CDs and even cheaper than the downloads.

If you’re still looking for more early Tudor music, Alto have just reissued a most enjoyable 77-minute super-bargain selection from two recordings which the Hilliard Ensemble made for Saga over 30 years ago but still sounding fresh: secular and religious music from the reigns of Henry VII and Henry VIII by Cornysh, Fayrfax and Sheryngham from the Eton Choirbook composers plus music by Henry VII, Barbireau and that prolific composer Anon (ALC1015: Music for Tudor Kings). The two original recordings surfaced briefly in Saga’s intermittent availability on CD; together with their companion recordings from the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods. They aren’t quite in the same league as these Coro and Gimell recordings but I have played and enjoyed hearing them regularly. Perhaps Alto will now oblige with the other recordings from this source.

I chose my words carefully when I said that John Browne was, in my opinion, the greatest English composer between Dunstaple and Tallis, since he has a very serious Scottish rival in Robert Carver (c.1487-after 1566), some of whose music has also been recorded by The Sixteen (CORO16051 – CD and download from classicsonline, theclassicalshop, iTunes and eMusic). You may even find this music impresses you more than anything in the Eton recordings – it’s certainly very dramatic, and I recommend this recording, too. I’d very much like to hear more of Carver’s music from The Sixteen or a rival version from The Tallis Scholars.

The notes to the Coro recordings advertise several other recordings by The Sixteen: there isn’t a dud among them or the others at www.thesixteen.com. Nor is there any better performance of any of Taverner’s music than the recordings which they made for Hyperion, now available on their inexpensive Helios label. Go for these on CD, for around £5-£6: don’t be tempted to download them from iTunes, whose flat price of £7.99 for Hyperion recordings is as illogical as the similar policy employed by Universal on their classicsandjazz website. You’ll find a complete list of recordings by The Tallis Scholars at www.gimell.com; again, you’ll be very hard put to find anything wrong with any of their recordings.

Brian Wilson


 


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