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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]
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 Eton Choirbook is one of the most important and most famous sources of English polyphony from the era before the Reformation. It was put together around 1500 and originally comprised 94 compositions, all of them sacred works in Latin. Only 64 works have survived, some of them incomplete. The surviving corpus consists of 54 motets, nine settings of the Magnificat and one Passion.
The latter is the St Matthew Passion by Richard Davy which is also recorded here, albeit incomplete. Its inclusion is justifiable because of the ensemble's wish to give an impression of this important source. However, considering that no modern recording is available a complete registration would have been very welcome. I have in my collection an old LP with a performance under the direction of Grayston Burgess, but that is stylistically rather outdated and as far as I know has never been reissued on CD. The part of the Evangelist is for solo voice and is well sung here by Benedict Hymas. The words of Christ are performed by Francis Brett who is a bit too pathetic. The words of Pilate and Pilate's wife as well as the turbae are taken by the full ensemble.
The Passion is immediately followed by a setting of the Stabat mater by John Browne. It is assumed that Browne sang as a boy in Eton College and may have gone to New College Oxford later on. His setting is a brilliant example of the florid style of the time, in which passages for six voices alternate with episodes for reduced forces. One doesn't expect text expression in this kind of music, but the way Browne has set the screams of the crowds: "Crucify him, crucify" is penetrating and makes a lasting impression. The six-part episodes come off best; the passages for a reduced number of voices are less convincing, largely due to the vibrato of some of the singers.
The programme includes two settings of the Magnificat, both alternatim compositions. The setting by William, Monk of Stratford, is performed alternately by high and low voices. I doubt that this is historically justified; it results in a lack of coherence. The other setting is by Hugh Kellyk and seems to have been recorded here for the first time. That leads to the consideration that it must have been possible to include more pieces which have not been recorded before. Several ensembles have devoted recordings to this collection, especially The Sixteen - with a series of five discs - and The Tallis Scholars. The quality of the music in the Eton Choirbook is such that a complete recording would be most welcome. This disc could have brought that ideal closer to realisation.
The most intriguing piece on this disc is the last, a canon for thirteen voices on the text of the Apostles' Creed, preceded by the chant Jesus autem transiens which moves from top to bottom through the various parts. Every entry has the name of one of the twelve apostles, beginning with Petrus, and ending with Matthias, the 'last' apostle who was chosen, after Jesus' Ascension, to replace Judas. Here we hear only the male voices of the ensemble.
Despite the density of this work the recording shows a remarkable transparency. That is also noticeable in the other pieces on this disc. That is the result of a new recording technique which was applied here for the first time. I don't know to what extent the transparency and clarity of the sound picture is due to this recording technique or whether the same result could have been achieved with the more conventional approach. After all, recording is not just a matter of technique but also of the skills and sensitive ears of the recording engineer. Whatever, there can be no doubt that Geoff Miles, who also explains the recording technique used here in the booklet, has done an excellent job.
That can be a mixed blessing, though. The wobble in some of the voices is more clearly exposed here than in other recordings. One could also ask whether composers really wanted every voice to be heard so clearly or whether the density was deliberate in order to create an overwhelming effect. That is probably more clearly audible in recordings by The Sixteen and The Tallis Scholars. However, this disc offers a different perspective on this repertoire and should not be missed by those with a more than average interest in it.
  Johan van Veen