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The Eton Choirbook
John SUTTON (fl.c.1476-79)
Salve Regina
a 7* [15:43]
William HORWOOD (d.1484)
Magnificat secundi toni
a 5* [11:36]
Edmund STURTON (fl. c.1500)
Gaude Virgo Mater Christi
a 6* [12:51]
John BROWNE (fl.c.1480-1505)
Stabat Mater
[13:44]
Robert WYLKYNSON (c.1475-after 1514)
Salve Regina
[14:54]
Huelgas Ensemble/Paul Van Nevel
rec. l’Eglise Saint-Sylvain, Saint Sauvant, Charente-Maritime, France, 18-19 July 2011. DDD
Booklet with texts and translations included
* world premiere recordings
DEUTSCHE HARMONIA MUNDI 88765 408852 [69:25]

Who would have imagined fifty years ago that we would have had a considerable discography of music from the Eton Choirbook - even among the handful of musicologists who had even heard of it then? For those who still haven’t knowingly heard any of the music, it’s a sumptuously produced book of music in honour of the Virgin Mary by composers of the late 15th and early 16th centuries, as sung at Eton College after Vespers and Compline. It ought to have been handed in after the first English Prayer Book was produced in 1549 but somehow, fortunately, it escaped destruction, though not all its pages are extant, and it survived to give us a small but precious window into the music of the end of an age when opus anglicanum - music and embroidered vestments - had been highly prized all over Europe.
 
I’ve taken the opportunity afforded by the new recording to offer an omnium gatherum of current recordings of this wonderful music. All those now on offer have real merit and there isn’t a single one among them that can be ruled out. With the exception of a few items, notably John Browne’s Stabat Mater, generally regarded as the masterpiece of the collection, there’s very little overlap so my advice to specialists would be to have them all. Those who fear temptation to the potential detriment of their bank account should skip to the end of the review for my summing up of the new recording.
 
Two LP recordings in the late 1960s introduced me to some of the music: one of these consisted of a complete performance directed by Grayston Burgess of Richard Davy’s Passion, a work still not available complete on CD, though Naxos offered a recording of a considerable chunk of it last year. A complete recording on CD by Eton College Choir on the Chatsworth label in 1995, coupled with music by Lambe and Nesbet seems to have perished some time ago.
 
At present the following recordings are available:
 
John BROWNE: Salve Regina [13:24]
Anon. Nesciens mater - Walter LAMBE (c.1450/1-1499?) Nesciens Mater [5:30]
William CORNYSHE (d.1502 or 1532) Ave Maria, Mater Dei [4:02]
Walter LAMBE Stella cæli [7:13]
Robert WYLKYNSON: Salve Regina [15:13]
Richard DAVY (c.1465-1507) Stabat Mater [14:30]
John BROWNE Stabat Mater [15:17]
The Sixteen/Harry Christophers - rec. 1980-82.
MERIDIAN CDE84175 or CDE84504 [75:10]
 
This was something of a pioneering effort among modern recordings, originally released on LP on the cusp of the introduction of CD. It’s by no means superseded by The Sixteen’s later and more comprehensive series of recordings, now available on their own Coro label. I missed this when it was released and actually obtained the five Coro CDs first, but I caught up with it recently as a download from amazon.co.uk. The forthright, but by no means insensitive performances are well recorded, even though the download falls well short of the ideal 320kb/s; it really is time that Amazon and iTunes caught up with other providers in that respect and that they followed the lead of Hyperion, Chandos and others in automatically providing booklets.
 
There’s also a brisk recording of Lambe’s Stella cœli by the Orlando Consort, part of a programme of 15th-century English devotional music on a very fine CD entitled The Call of the Phoenix, currently available only as a download - pending the return of the album on the Harmonia Mundi Gold or Musique d’Abord label, I hope. 

Plainsong
Stabat Mater [6:25]
Giovanni Pierluigi da PALESTRINA (1525-1594) Stabat Mater a 8 [11:03]
Arvo PÄRT (b.1935) Stabat Mater (arr. M. Bruno) [29:19]
John BROWNE Stabat Mater [14:31]
Taverner Consort/Andrew Parrott
VIRGIN CLASSICS DOWNLOAD [61:18] - from classicsonline.com (mp3) or stream from Naxos Music Library
 
The Browne Stabat Mater here is the sole survivor of an EMI Reflexe CD of music from around 1500 by English and Scottish composers on which Taverner and Carver also featured. The download is well worth having, not least for its illustration of the differences and similarities of settings of the Stabat Mater in a continuous tradition from plainsong to Arvo Pärt, but the return of that Reflexe CD would be even more welcome. Perhaps EMI’s new owners, Warner Music Group, would consider reissuing it on Erato, apparently now to be revived as their early-music label.
 
The Eton Choirbook Collection
Anon.: This day day dawes
Ah, my dear, ah, my dear Son!
Afraid, alas, and why so suddenly?
John BROWNE: Stabat iuxta Christi crucem
Jesu, mercy, how may this be?
Stabat Mater
Salve Regina
O Maria salvatoris mater
William CORNYSH the elder (d.1502) or William CORNYSH (d.1523)? Stabat Mater
Ave Maria, Mater Dei
Salve Regina
Richard DAVY: Stabat Mater
O Domine cæli terræque creator
Ah, mine heart, remember thee well
A Blessid Jhesu
Salve Regina
In Honore Summæ Matris
Robert FAYRFAX (1464-1521): Magnificat ‘Regale’
Richard HYGONS (c.1435-c.1509) Salve Regina
Hugh KELLYK (fl. c.1480) Gaude Flore Virginali
Walter LAMBE (c.1450/1-1499?) Stella cæli
Salve Regina
WILLIAM, Monk of Stratford: Magnificat
John NESBETT: Magnificat
John PLUMMER: Tota Pulchra es
Anna Mater Matris Christi
SHERYNGHAM (fl. c.1500) Ah, gentle Jesu
Edmund TURGES (c.1450-?) From stormy windes
Robert WYLKYNSON: Jesus autem transiens/Credo in Deum
Salve Regina
The Sixteen/Harry Christophers
CORO COR16040 [5 CDs for the price of 3] - details and review
 
Available separately as:
 
Volume I: The Rose and the Ostrich Feather COR16026
Volume II: The Crown of Thorns COR16012 - details and review
Volume III: The Pillars of Eternity COR16022
Volume IV: The Flower of All Virginity COR16018
Volume V: The Voices of Angels COR16002
All volumes include texts and translations
 
This is the most comprehensive collection from the Eton Choirbook, though the Christ Church recordings on Avie (below) are catching up; they now run to two CDs with, hopefully, more to follow. I’d purchase of the complete set - any single CD is likely to make you want more.
 
John BROWNE: Music from the Eton Choirbook
Tallis Scholars/Peter Phillips
Texts and translations included
GIMELL CDGIM036 [71:25] - details and review

Also included in an inexpensive 2-for-1 collection: The Tallis Scholars Sing Tudor Music I (CDGIM209: Bargain of the Month - review and Tallis Scholars at 30) and a budget-price 4-CD set Sacred Music in the Renaissance III (GIMBX303: Bargain of the Month - review and December 2010 Download Roundup).
 
William CORNYSH
Salve Regina* [13:53]
Ave Maria, mater Dei*/*** [3:10]
Gaude virgo mater Christi*/** [5:24]
Magnificat [12:17]
Ah, Robin, gentle Robin [2:27]
Adieu, adieu, my heartes lust [1:45]
Adieu, corage [0:58]
Wofully arrayed [9:07]
Stabat Mater [15:42]
The Tallis Scholars/Peter Phillips
Texts and translations included
GIMELL CDGIM014 [65:00] - see Tallis Scholars at 30
 
Works marked * are also available on CDGIM209 (see above); ** on in Sacred Music in the Renaissance I (GIMBX301, 4 CDs at budget price: Bargain of the Month - review) and *** on Renaissance Radio (CDGIM212, 2 CDs at budget price: Recording of the Month - review).
 
All Cornysh’s sacred music here, except the Magnificat, from the Caius Choirbook, comes from the Eton Choirbook. Gimell treat all the music as by the same William Cornysh, though the question has been raised as to whether there were two composers of that name, one who died in 1502 and the other in 1523, possibly father and son - an issue which I’m not going to pursue here, since it doesn’t impinge on the quality of the music or performances.
 
I will say, however, that these are performances to which I frequently return, like the Gimell Browne CD, which, alongside The Sixteen’s recordings of that composer, formed the basis of one of the earliest reviews which I wrote for MusicWeb International: Give Early Music a Try: John Browne and the Eton Choirbook - here. When I wrote that article, I never thought that I would have four more recordings of Browne’s Stabat mater to review less than five years later, but I’m not surprised that I still turn to these two Gimell recordings.
 
Wiliam CORNYSH Gaude virgo, Mater Christi [5:02]
Henry PRENTES Magnificat (after Cornysh) [16:18]
Wiliam CORNYSH Salve Regina [15:12]
Ave Maria, Mater Dei [2:48]
Magnificat [13:43]
Edmund TURGES Magnificat [19:42]
The Cardinall’s Musick/Andrew Carwood - rec.1997. DDD.
ASV GAUDEAMUS CDGAU164 [73:00]
[not generally available on CD: download from 7digital.com]
 
The ASV label has been in and out of availability in recent years and this doesn’t seem to be extant on CD but the 7digital.com download, though without texts and in mp3 only, albeit at the full 320kb/s, makes a good substitute. Three of the works are settings of the Vespers canticle Magnificat and the text of that is readily available online. I’m a great admirer of the Cardinall’s Musick, especially of their Byrd, begun for ASV and continued by Hyperion; though I hadn’t heard this recording until I obtained it for this review, their performances of Cornysh now vie in my affections with those of the Tallis scholars.
 
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] 
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 KELLYK (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. 2011 
Texts and translations included
NAXOS 8.572840  [79:00] - see review, review and August 2012 Download Roundup
 
This is the least expensive of the recordings of the Eton Choirbook. You’ll find detailed reviews by following the three links above.
 
More Divine Than Human - Music from The Eton Choirbook
John FAWKYNER (fl. late 15 th century) Gaude rosa sine spina [16:35]
William CORNYSH (d. c.1502) Salve Regina [15:42]
Walter LAMBE (b. 1450-51. d. after Michaelmas 1504) Magnificat [12:58]
Richard DAVY (c. 1465-1535) In honore summe matris [17:42]
John BROWNE (fl. c. 1480-1505) Stabat mater [15:16]
The Choir of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford/Stephen Darlington - rec. 2009
Latin texts and English translations included
AVIE AV2167 [78:55] - review
 
Choirs of Angels: Music from the Eton Choirbook - Volume 2
John BROWNE (fl. c.1490)
  O Maria salvatoris mater a 8  [15:50]
William CORNYSH the elder (d.1502)   Ave Maria mater Dei a 4  [4:08] 
Richard DAVY (c.1465-1507)   Salve Jesu mater vera a 5  [16:50]
Walter LAMBE (c.1450/1-1499)  O Maria plena gracia a 6  [20:53]
Robert WYLKYNSON (c.1450-1515 or later)  Salve Regina a 9  [16:23]
The Choir of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford/Stephen Darlington
Latin texts and English translations included
AVIE AV2184  [74:04] - see 2013/10 Download News

There are downloads of both these Avie recordings, and at less than the cost of the discs, notably from emusic.com (£2.10 each) and, for Volume 2, amazon.co.uk (£3.99 as I write), but they come without the valuable booklets of notes, texts and translations. Classicsonline.com offer the booklet of Volume 1 and their download comes at a higher bit-rate than emusic.com, but they don’t have Volume 2 at the time of writing. Both volumes were serious considerations for Recording of the Month status.
 
One final mention: the Fayrfax Magnificat Regale, recorded by The Sixteen on Volume I of their set, also opens, in a more expansive interpretation, a collection on a DaCapo CD entitled Taverner and Tudor Music II (Ars Nova Copenhagen/Paul Hillier - review).
 
All the collections listed above, apart from the new Huelgas Ensemble, the Meridian recording of The Sixteen and Volume 2 from Christ Church are available for streaming from Naxos Music Library, whence the second Christ Church collection will surely emanate soon.
 
If you peruse the track-listings of these selections, you can hardly fail to notice that by far the most popular single piece is John Browne’s 6-part Stabat Mater. On paper there’s a wide range of tempi:
 
The Sixteen (Coro) - 13:13
Huelgas Ensemble - 13:44
Taverner Consort - 14:31
Christ Church - 15:16
The Sixteen (Meridian) - 15:17
Tallis Scholars - 15:56
Tonus Peregrinus - 16:14
 
I’m not surprised to see The Sixteen taking the music fairly briskly, or the Tallis Scholars giving the music more time to breathe. I went back to the Coro and the Gimell recordings to check and found myself confirming my recommendation of these two old friends - the Gimell offering more music by Browne, the Coro themed around the Passion with the title Crown of Thorns. The faster pace of The Sixteen makes the cry of crucifige, crucify, all the more dramatic, without any sense of undue hurry throughout the work, but tempo is not everything and the Taverner Consort, at more than a minute longer overall, also make the cry ring out dramatically. The Tallis Scholars offer a more reflective interpretation, though the music is never allowed to lag; if crucifige is marginally less dramatic, its effect is not diminished.
 
Christ Church Cathedral Choir’s two CDs so far - more to come, I hope - give us a chance to hear the music from the kind of choral establishment for which it was intended; the Christ Church establishment still contains the same complement of men and boys as when the college was founded by Cardinal Wolsey. I’m certainly not going to suggest ruling out all the mixed-voice recordings - see my comments on the Huelgas Ensemble below - but all lovers of the music of this period should seriously consider investing in at least one of these CDs.
 
We don’t know exactly how the music would have sounded in the early 1500s or whether the composers would have approved of any one of these recordings. We don’t even know for certain how Latin - or English - was pronounced at the time, before the reforms in teaching which were introduced by the New Humanists like Dean Colet at St Paul’s School, much less how clear the words were meant to be. Trust me that you don’t really want to get bogged down in a fruitless discussion on this topic which I foolishly conducted with one of our readers replying to Johan Veen’s review of the Naxos recording.
 
Paul van Nevel’s recording with the Huelgas Ensemble are renowned for the rich sonority of the performances, sometimes achieved with a little editorial help. I don’t object to giving the music a nudge in this way, as in the case of the recent Harmonia Mundi Musique d’Abord reissue of their recording of Richafort’s Requiem (HMA1951730 - review) but I’m pretty sure that there has not been any assistance here or any need for it. The Eton music is rich in sonority, which is why it had a limited shelf life - by the time of the better known 16th-century English composers such as Taverner, Tallis and Byrd a simpler style had become fashionable, only to be replaced by a simpler style still for English texts after the reformation.
 
The Huelgas recording of the Richafort is a little more sedate than the rival recording with which I compared it, on Hyperion, but they are only a little slower than The Sixteen in Browne’s Stabat Mater. That doesn’t mean that either performance sounds rushed; the cry of Crucifige, crucifige in the Browne Stabat Mater on the new CD is a little less dramatic than on some other recordings, but that’s the other side of the coin of the Huelgas sonority.*
 
I didn’t find the slight lack of drama at this point to the detriment of my enjoyment, though it makes less apparent the extent to which late-medieval/early renaissance literature and music concentrated on the drama and suffering of Christ’s Passion. I’d certainly consider purchasing the Taverner Consort’s download-only recording of the Browne Stabat as a supplement to the new CD; as it happens, the tempo adopted by Andrew Parrott, whose new recording of Monteverdi’s l’Orfeo I’m also currently greatly enjoying (Avie AV2278) is in the middle of that wide range, but that’s not the only reason favouring it.
 
The other downside of the de-luxe Huelgas style is that the words are less audible than on other recordings, but they are there in the booklet and these are texts that would have been very well known through repetition to the original listeners.
 
The Huelgas Ensemble don’t sound like the Eton Choir who would originally have sung the music - these are clearly female voices on the top line, but they produce a more than passable stab at sounding like boy trebles. If you must have that kind of authenticity, you will have to restrict yourself to the two Christ Church recordings and any further releases which may emanate from that source (?) but that would rule out the Virgin, Coro and Gimell recordings, too, which for me would be unthinkable.
 
I can’t recommend a ‘best buy’ but the new recording would make as good a starting point as any, since it includes that favourite John Browne Stabat Mater. For specialists it’s essential, since three of the five works - the first three listed - are world premiere recordings and they all merit their inclusion here. The purse-proud may wish to save by downloading from amazon.co.uk, where it’s available for £3.45, albeit only in mp3 and at a maximum of 256kb/s. 7 digital.com, whose normal price is £7.99, are offering it for a reduced £4.95 as I write and their download is at the full mp3 bit-rate of 320kb/s. Neither, however, contains the valuable book of notes, texts and translations; the physical disc even contains an inlay card with a facsimile of the beautiful first page of Sutton’s Salve Regina. Though I’m an advocate of downloads, on this occasion I’d go for the CD, which the suppliers listed on our web page have for around £11.
 
Lovers of fancy early-modern spelling will have a field day with the names of the composers, listed in the booklet and on the rear insert as given in semi-Latinised form in the manuscript.
 
The Huelgas performances are well recorded and they are well worth considering. For lovers of early Tudor church music this recording is a must - and not only for the three premieres. Non-specialists should be warned: they may well be so entranced that they will have to have the other recordings of this wonderful music.
 
* As a demonstration of how differently two listeners can hear things, a review of this CD which appeared as I was closing comments that the cries of Crucifige come across with particular force.
 
Brian Wilson 


Experience Classicsonline