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In the Midst of Life - Music From the Baldwin Part Books - Volume 1
William BYRD (1543-1623) 
Circumdederunt me dolores mortis
 [5.04]; Audivi vocem de caelo [4.15]
Robert PARSONS (c.1530-1571) 
Libera me Domine
Peccantem me quotidie
Credo quod redemptor meus vivit
John TAVERNER (c.1490-1545)
Quemadmodum [6.30]
William MUNDY (c.1530-1591)
Sive vigilem [3.31]
Dericke GERARDE (d.1580)
Sive vigilem [6.13]
Thomas TALLIS (c.1505-1585)
Nunc dimittis [3.14]
John SHEPPARD (c.1515-1558)
Media vita [23.09]
Contrapunctus/Owen Rees
rec. church of St. Michael and All Angels, Oxford, UK, 2014

This is the first time I'd come across Contrapunctus, and I sought out this disc on the recommendation of another who had heard it. I'm heartily glad I did. This is the first of a planned survey of music contained in a collection known as the Baldwin Part Books. It’s an anthology of nearly 170 works for choir, transcribed between 1575 and 1581 by John Baldwin, a singer in the choir of St George’s Chapel, Windsor. He would later go on to join the Chapel Royal. Owen Rees, Contrapunctus’ conductor, writes in the programme note about how important a collection this is. For several works, it’s our only record of them, and Contrapunctus are embarking on a series of recordings from it, based around certain themes. The theme for this disc, Part One, is mortality, with music about death, judgement and the hereafter.

The first thing that strikes you is the incredibly intimate sound that the choir produce. They're a small ensemble (9-10 voices) and that, combined with their approach to the music, makes them extremely distinctive. In fact, they’re more like a collection of soloists rather than a chorus, with each voice distinct and no one subsumed. Their sound is remarkable – intimate yet immersive, fully rounded and spine-tinglingly beautiful – and it’s especially appropriate for a disc of repertoire like this. Byrd's Circumdederunt me speaks of the sorrows of death "encompassing": I felt as though the sound of this disc was surrounding me in a similar — albeit much more pleasurable — way.

Parsons' Libera me is hypnotically beautiful while retaining just a shred of the anxiety that is inherent in this text from the Requiem mass. Byrd's Audivi vocem is similar, bringing none of the comfort that his text (Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord) might imply. The text of Sive vigilem speaks of the perpetual warning of judgement and the necessity of preparedness. William Mundy sets it with longing melismas that speak both of the fear of the Last Judgement and the longing for a release in the hereafter, while Dericke Gerarde's slower moving setting is, if anything, even more intense in its other-worldly ardour.

Parsons' Peccantem me quotidie opens with the bleakest tenor line on the disc and moves, rather some lonely sounding plainchant, to a major key conclusion. Taverner's setting of Psalm 42 uses long, aching melismas to replicate the longing of the hart for the brook, and thus the soul of the believer for God.

The centrepiece of the disc, and its fitting culmination, is Sheppard's vast Media vita. This great edifice of Tudor polyphony places the Nunc Dimittis within longer lines about the approach of death. The text itself isn't actually that long. The length of the anthem is down to Sheppard's use of a very slow-moving chant that underpins the other vocal lines and allows him room to develop his counterpoint on a huge scale. It's performed here with spellbinding beauty. Each voice weaves in and out of the others radiant beauty and bell-like clarity, and it's like watching some great structure taking place before your very eyes (or ears). The soaring soprano lines sometimes seems as though about to take flight, while the basses far below keep the steady chant of the line going with the minimum of fuss. It's breathtaking, and Rees directs the whole thing with the steady hand of somebody who has made it his care and delight to bring this music to life.

Of much more than just historical importance, this disc deserves to find a wide audience.

Simon Thompson
Previous reviews: Brian Wilson ~ Gary Higginson



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