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The Spy's Choirbook - Petrus Alamire and the Court of Henry VIII
Alamire; English Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble/David Skinner
rec. 4-8 February 2014, Fitzalan Chapel, Arundel Castle
Latin texts and English translations included
Full track-listing at the end of this review
OBSIDIAN CD712 [64:21 + 50:50]

It is by no means unusual for artists or record companies to give titles to CDs but the title of this present collection – ‘The Spy’s Choirbook’ – is one of the most intriguing that I’ve encountered.

Petrus Alamire (ca 1470-1536), from whom David Skinner’s vocal group takes its name, was quite a remarkable man. Since I knew nothing of him prior to receiving these discs for review I’m going to draw pretty heavily on Dr. Skinner’s booklet notes to give readers some background. Also known as Peter Imhoff or Peter van den Hove, he was born in Nuremburg. He pursued a varied career as a brilliant illuminator of manuscripts and music scribe. Furthermore he was, in Skinner’s words, “a noted musician, singer and composer in his own right." It was in his musical and scribing capacities that he flourished in Antwerp for many years – and again I quote Dr. Skinner - “first under the employ of the young Archduke Charles then on to a long association as music copyist for the Confraternity of Our Lady for whom he produced a large number of music books. He continued his links with the Hapsburg Burgundian court until 1535.”

There was much more to him than his musical and scribing attributes. He was also, at various times, a merchant, mining engineer, diplomat and spy. Using his frequent travels as a musician and the entrée to the various courts of Europe that his skills gave him Alamire carried out a number of delicate – and probably perilous – undercover espionage missions for important clients, one of whom was the English King, Henry VIII. In 1516 or 1517 to ingratiate himself with Henry he sent the king a number of musical gifts, including, it is known, a number of music books and a magnificently decorated parchment manuscript. This, Dr Skinner, believes, is quite probably what he describes as a “sumptuously illuminated choirbook, which is now housed in the British Library with the catalogue number Royal MS 8.g.vii.” It is thought that the choirbook was a gift to Henry VIII and his then wife, Katharine of Aragon for the texts of several of the pieces invoke the desire for childbearing and at this time Henry was desperate for Katherine to provide him with a male heir. Intriguingly, the gift of the choirbook to Henry perhaps represents a bit of nifty recycling on Alamire’s part for the collection may well have been prepared for King Louis XII of France and his wife prior to the sudden death of Louis whereupon Henry became the recipient instead.

Fittingly for a book intended for royalty the collection comprises, in David Skinner’s words, pieces that are “among the finest French and Franco-Flemish compositions available from the first decades of the sixteenth century.” There’s some sumptuous music here and the sumptuousness is enhanced in many cases by using the instruments of the English Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble to double the vocal lines, in accordance with contemporary practice. Those pieces contrast nicely with the many a cappella pieces on the programme. In addition five of the pieces are played by the instrumental ensemble without any vocal contributions, though the texts of the pieces in question are included in the booklet.

There are thirty-four separate items on the programme, which represents the entire contents of the choirbook. It would be impossible to discuss them all though I can assure readers that the quality of the pieces is uniformly high. The programme gets off to a most impressive start with Mouton’s Celeste beneficium. This is a grand, sonorous piece and the instrumental doubling adds to the impression of robust affirmation. By contrast La Rue’s Doleo super te frater mi Ionatha, for unaccompanied choir, is a slow and deeply felt composition. Sancta Maria succurre miseris by Franciscus Strus, a composer previously unknown to me, is another work in which the instruments are involved. It’s a gorgeous and stately piece.

Though many of the pieces are slow and devotional Therache’s Verbum bonum et suave is something of an exception; it’s urgent and joyful and I liked it very much. The rich and splendid O beatissime Domine Iesu Christe, one of a number of pieces which have defied scholarly attribution, brings the first disc to a splendid conclusion. On the second disc Mouton’s Ecce Maria genuit nobis, a fine piece, receives an urgent, exciting performance and Févin’s Egregie Christi martir Christophore is exultant. There are no fewer than five separate settings of Dulces exuviae and it’s most interesting to hear them sung as a sequence; all are very good pieces. The setting of Absalon fili mi may be by either Josquin or La Rue; whoever was responsible for its creation the result is a deep, reflective setting which I found very moving.

As I said, the standard of the music in this collection is consistently high. The performances are equally consistent: the fifteen singers of Alamire sing this music quite magnificently. Technically, their singing is flawless and their commitment ensures that the pieces are communicated very strongly. The contribution of the instrumentalists, whether in an accompanying role or in the purely instrumental pieces, is also very fine. David Skinner directs the music with evident authority.

Once again Alamire have been recorded in the lovely acoustic of the Fitzalan Chapel in Arundel Castle. The acoustic makes its own mellow contribution to the music-making and the recording team of producer Nigel Short and engineer Jim Cross have done an excellent job. The booklet contains scholarly but eminently readable notes which will be as valuable to the expert listener as they will be informative to a less specialist purchaser.

Petrus Alamire may not have been quite the James Bond of his day but he was clearly a discriminating collector of musical gems. I don’t know whether this fascinating compilation found favour with Henry VIII but it should certainly delight modern-day listeners.

John Quinn

Track-listing

CD 1 [64:21]
Jean MOUTON (c.1459-1522) Celeste beneficium
Antoine de FÉVIN (c.1470-1511/12) Adiutorium nostrum
Anonymous Nesciens mater
Pierre de LA RUE (c.1452-1518) Ave regina caelorum
Josquin DESPREZ attrib. (c.1450-1521) Descendi in hortum meum
Antoine de FÉVIN Sancta trinitas unus Deus
Pierre DE LA RUE Vexilla Regis / Passio Domini nostri
Josquin DESPREZ Fama malum
Pierre DE LA RUE Doleo super te frater mi Ionatha
Anonymous O Domine Iesu Christe / Et sanctissima mater tua
Anonymous Maxsimilla Christo amabilis
Franciscus STRUS, (fl. 1500) Sancta Maria succurre miseris / O werder mondt
Anonymous Sancta et immaculata virginitas
Josquin DESPREZ Missus est Gabriel archangelus
Anonymous Dulcissima virgo Maria
Anonymous Tota pulchra es amica mea / O pulcherrima mulierum / Salve
Anonymous O sancta Maria virgo virginum
Pierrequin de THERACHE (c.1470-1528) Verbum bonum et suave
Anonymous Recordamini quomodo praedixit filium
Anonymous O beatissime Domine Iesu Christe / Fac me de tua gratia ut

CD 2 [50:50]
Anonymous Ave sanctissima Maria
Jean MOUTON Ecce Maria genuit nobis
Anonymous Congratulamini mihi omnes
Antoine de FÉVIN Egregie Christi martir Christophore / Ecce enim
Anonymous Alma redemptoris mater
Anonymous Dulces exuviae
Alexander AGRICOLA (c.1446-1506) Dulces exuviae
Josquin DESPREZ Dulces exuviae
Jean MOUTON Dulces exuviae
Johannes GHISELIN (fl. 1500) Dulces exuviae
Josquin DESPREZ or Pierre de LA RUE attrib. Absalon fili mi
Anonymous Iesus autem transiens
Heinrich ISAAC (c.1445-1517) Anima mea liquefacta est / Invenerunt me / Filiae Ierusalem Josquin DESPREZ atrrib. Tribulatio et angustia invenerunt me