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REVIEW
RECORDINGS OF THE MONTH
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Music from The Peterhouse Partbooks
Blue Heron/Scott Metcalfe

Volume 1
Hugh ASTON (c.1485-1558)
Ave Maria dive matris Anne [11.17]
Gaude Virgo mater Christi [12.02]
Ave Maria ancilla trinitatis [14.36]
John MASON (c.1480-1548)
O Qualis O miseri [12.13]
Robert JONES (fl.c1530-1535)
Magnificat [13.38]
rec. 6-11 September 2009, Church of Christ of the Redeemer, Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts
BLUE HERON BHCD1002 [63.48]

Volume 2
Nicholas LUDFORD
Missa Regnum mundi
(with suitable Sarum plainchants for the Feast of St. Margaret of Antioch) [56.55]
Richard PYGOTT (c.1485-1549)
Salve Regina [22.48]
rec. Church of the Redeemer, Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, 18-21 September, 8 October 2011
BLUE HERON BHCD 1003 [79.40]

Volume 3
John MASON
Ave fuit prima salus
[19.17]
Plainchant Kyrie
Cunctipotens genitor
[3.07]
Nicholas LUDFORD
Missa Inclina cor meum
[37.34]
rec. Church of Christ the Redeemer, Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, 21-22 September, 22-26 October 2012
BLUE HERON BHCD1004 [59.58]

Volume 4
Nicholas LUDFORD
Ave cujus conception
[8.51]
Plainchant Kyrie
Deus creator omnium
[2.27]
Robert JONES
Missa Spes nostra
[34.43]
Robert HUNT (fl.c1520)
Stabat Mater [17.51]
rec. October 2013, The Church of the Redeemer, Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts.
BLUE HERON BHCD 1005 [65.51]

A great deal of the Eton Choirbook has now been recorded, in some cases several times over, although there is still much to discover. By contrast the Peterhouse Partbooks, of which even more music survives, have remained mostly unknown. This is partly because, until recently, modern editions of the pieces were not extant. Thanks now to the expertise and devotion of Nick Sandon and Antico Edition things are being put right. In his essay 'Provenance, destination and historical interpretation' he tells us that the main problem with this music is that the tenor part is mostly missing and in some cases the treble parts also. Reconstruction therefore is painstaking.

Scott Metcalfe in his notes on ‘Performance Practice’ comments that Sandon’s “quite amazing accomplishment is to have recreated a musical line that is utterly idiomatic, not merely to the general language of English music … but to the local dialect and accent of one composer” and his style.

Peterhouse College is in Cambridge almost next door to the Fitzwilliam Museum. It is an unpretentious college and it seems odd that it should have such a precious manuscript. In fact it is there only through the generosity of the college who campaigned to have their own chapel in the 1640s and needed choral repertoire. The music in these books must have appeared somewhat out of date by then. The manuscript seems to have been copied in Oxford by a certain musician named Bull.

In all there are seventy-two works and about twenty-five composers are represented. Many of these were, Oxford-based and many have hardly if ever been recorded before as here with Robert Jones. True, Fayrfax and Taverner do appear in the partbooks but so do Thomas Appleby, John Catcott, Robert Hunt and Edward Martyn, unknowns as yet. Also Nicholas Ludford, who has four discs to his name already. Don’t start thinking that these ‘unknowns’ are singers who dabbled in composition. By all reckoning they were also fine composers and it's one of my only gripes that Blue Heron have concentrated a little too much on names we already know in these four volumes instead of taking the opportunity to introduce other composers to us. It also seems that the manuscript has a strong connection with Canterbury and that some works were composed there and copied and brought across to Oxford.

Oddly enough little attention has been paid to this music by musicologists. Frank Ll. Harrison in his wonderful tome ‘Music in Medieval Britain’ (London, 1958/63) only devotes one page to the manuscript (p.336). A much more in-depth look can be found in Hugh Benham’s ‘Latin Church Music’ (London, 1977).

It's good however that Hugh Aston — only his keyboard music has ever been available on CD — is well represented. I was much moved by the setting of Ave Maria ancilla trinitatis and also in five parts the glorious Ave Maria dive matris Anne. This latter deploys an unusual text linking the Virgin Mary with the belief that her mother also had a virgin birth. Each line begins ‘Hail Mary’.

Similarly each line of Gaude virgo mater Christi begins with ‘Rejoice O Virgin’. It’s a showy and flamboyant work but interestingly moves into calm waters and becomes almost homophonic in the final section where the text changes to ‘O Maria virgo mater’. This is the only piece here that Sandon did not have to reconstruct as it exists (to a different text) in another source.

Robert Jones’s lines are lyrical and almost modern although some of his cadences seem to date back well into the fifteenth century. His Magnificat has polyphony ‘in alternatim’ with the plainchant.

It’s interesting that John Mason had his education, both musical and clerical, financed by Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry VII. He then worked for Cardinal Wolsey but ended his days at Hereford Cathedral. I wonder for what event and for which choir he composed his men-only votive antiphon Quales sumus O miseri. Its text is unique and curious. It opens with “What are we, O wretches/hurrying to the gates of hell/stinking within four days/that we dare to praise you?”. It’s a fine work and the rich and fervent voices of Blue Heron are most convincing in their interpretation.

Volume 2
You needn’t be concerned that Blue Heron have women taking the top parts. I know that many, including myself, often prefer boys making a full, all-male choir but the ladies of this American group sing with a beauty and a purity almost unrivalled. The slightly earlier Eton Choirbook repertoire has been recorded by The Sixteen with women on the top parts and more recently, in three volumes by the all-male choristers of Oxford Cathedral. The Peterhouse repertoire is possibly less demanding, certainly from a tessitura point of view. The decision may also be down to Nick Sandon not being obsessed, as other editors and conductors have been, with the idea of transposing the original up a minor third. However ‘he that dabbles with pitch will be boiled in pitch’ so I should move on. Via the Antico website I contacted the RSCM and was sent a score of Richard Pygott’s Salve Regina.

The score is generously presented. Sandon writes a general note on the Peterhouse partbooks, then a biography of the composer, in this case Pygott. There follows a note on the text used which here is a heavily troped one. Then we have ‘Suggestions for Performance’, concerning the size of choir that might best be employed. Finally there's an ‘Editorial Commentary’ and a ‘Critical Commentary’.

The work takes up a massive twenty-four pages and appears, not surprisingly, to be the longest setting of the text by an English composer of the period. It has a number of similarities with the setting by Cornysh and was written when Wolsey’s chapel was at its grandest. It certainly requires a choir of great stamina. The Cornysh setting weighs in at seven minutes shorter in the performance by Cardinall’s Musick: ASV GAU 154.

Pygott does not have all six parts singing throughout - there are two contra-tenor lines - as an example. This is typical of the entire repertoire. We will take the middle section beginning ‘Ad te clamamus’ which is for the lower four voices then at ‘gementes et flentes’, all six sing in a basically homophonic texture which develops polyphonically. At ‘ad vocatus nostra’, the upper three voices are left alone until ‘et Jesum’ which has all voices singing three sustained chords. There is therefore much variety.

This well-filled CD features a complete mass, Ludford’s Missa Regnum mundi. Ludford is now quite well known due to a series of four discs brought out in the 1990s by Cardinall’s Musick under Andrew Carwood but he is hardly a household name despite the high quality of his work. His music survives in three sources other than the Peterhouse books. There are seven festal masses, four of which are on ASV, seven small-scale lady masses, four votive antiphons and a Magnificat; the latter on ASV GAU 132. The present mass uses a plainchant for unspecified female martyrs, one of whom is the probably apocryphal figure of Margaret of Antioch. Her feast day is 20 July. As St. Margaret’s Westminster, which was Ludford’s parish church, is dedicated to her it seems that that is where the work might have received its first performance before somehow making its way to Oxford to be transferred to the Peterhouse manuscripts.

Blue Heron have decided to offer the mass in a liturgical context with several appropriate plainchants interspersing an opening Introitus, a Kyrie plainchant, a Graduale and Alleluya and an Offertorium after the Creed and a Communio before the Agnus. The marvellous reconstruction of the polyphony can be heard not only in the tenor part but also in the treble from half way through the Creed to the end. Believe me, you “can’t see the join”.

The music is serene and lyrical. There are some memorable moments for example in the expansive Benedictus in the wonderfully melismatic ‘nomine domini’ section and in the Hosanna. Metcalfe writes of the work’s “invention and colour”.

Speaking of which, the booklet notes have been expanded because in the two years between recording sessions since volume 1 a few changes regarding performance pitch and voice disposition have been made. They are quite extensive and worth reading in advance of listening.

Volume 3
The Mass Inclina cor meum which is preceded by a suitable plainsong Kyrie, is based on a very unpromising plainchant melody quoted in the usual extensive booklet notes. In all it only consists of Es, Ds and Gs with just a couple of Fs and a B thrown into the mix of thirty pitches. Even more curiously Ludford used the same cantus firmus in his setting of the Salve Regina and in the motet Ave ancilla trinitatis (ASV GAU 140). Consequently this vast work hangs around similar tonalities for extended periods. At times, as half way through the Credo, its meanderings “across the landscape” seem aimless but the harmonic pace is so gentle that one begins to concentrate, as the booklet tells us, on texture, vocal colourings and indeed on the text itself, which is always so clearly presented.

In a long essay accompanying the work Scott Metcalfe explains his choice of pitch set at A465. He also points out that Blue Heron, at thirteen singers in all, seems to be the size of an early Tudor choir at 3/3/2/2/3. He also makes out a case for women’s voices, which he need not have done as they have such purity of delivery and diction.

With Nick Sandon having transcribed all of the works in the Peterhouse books and many other pieces besides, his ability to get inside the mind of a medieval composer is tantamount to unique. How did John Mason say, compose his setting of Ave fuit prima salus. He had no keyboard on which to try out his ideas but is that in reality really true? Did he need one? Did he compose just at a desk line by line as we have always believed? Many of these works are ‘symphonic’ in breadth. Why have no sketches or working manuscripts come down to us when discovered by architects on floors or in graffiti or stone embrasures? This is as vast a setting of an antiphon as you will ever find.

If you can still find it, Mason’s O Rex Gloriae was recorded on Nimbus (NI5578) by Christchurch Choir in Oxford in 1999. I have heard nothing else by him except the motet in volume 1 of this series. His Ave fuit prima salus takes a remarkable text attributed to Jacopone da Todi (d.1306). Each of the seventeen verses begins with a word from the greeting made by the Angel Gabriel to the Virgin at the Annunciation. Verse one begins ‘Ave’, verse two ‘Maria’, three ‘Gracia’ four ‘Plena’. In addition each verse ends with ‘Ave Maria’. The verses are often set to different vocal combinations but Sandon has, quite miraculously, reconstructed two of the parts. The lyrical lines are so intertwined and the setting of the repetitive words so imaginative and beautifully conceived that I found myself listening in wonder to the genius behind this work and the fact that we know nothing of him.

Volume 4
The text of Ludford’s five-part Ave cujus conception concerns the so-called Five Corporal Joys of Mary, such as Nativity and Purification. It is a work of joyous vitality which rises in ecstasy towards it final lines. This was also recorded back in 1993 by Cardinall’s Musick in an equally beautiful performance. It was heard there in a remarkably similar transcription by David Skinner but set at a higher pitch. This new performance is also quite riveting.

With this recording of his Missa Spes nostra practically all that survives by Robert Jones is now available. Metcalfe describes him as 'highly skilled and inspired' and later as 'unique' and 'mature'. The mass uses the plainchant for Trinity Sunday ‘Spes nostra salus’ and the chant is quoted in the notes. With its rising F major arpeggio topped by an unexpected E the tonality is generally bright and in the major mode. The E and its ensuing D and C however enable and give rise to many unusual harmonic twists. The melodic writing remains logical and good to sing. The mass has no Kyrie so Blue Heron have supplied the troped one as printed which they sing in an arrestingly free but dramatic style.

Nothing is known also of Robert Hunt. The text of his Stabat Mater is a slightly adapted one; indeed a touch more dramatic version of the one set a generation or so earlier by the Eton Choirbook composers. Hunt’s may well be the last of the pre-reformation settings. It floats beautifully along and Sandon’s reconstruction of both the tenor and the treble is a miracle of inspiration. Unlike the Eton composers Hunt and his contemporaries are not as rhythmically intricate. The lines are elucidated with a more lyrical simplicity. Whereas in a vast work of this length (seventeen minutes) the earlier composers could often get bogged down in wearisome, complex counterpoint Hunt and Jones avoid that but have more of a sense of melodic and harmonic direction. A seventeen-minute Eton piece can sometimes be a trial; not so here. I was delighted to read that Hunt is to be explored further with a mass in a forthcoming volume 5.

The booklet notes repeat some of those previously encountered but add the (limited) composer biographies and musical descriptions. There's also another brief essay on pitch and how it was employed for these pieces.

I cannot praise these recordings too highly; they have opened my ears not only to this rare repertoire but also to a choir and a vocal sound and timbre which I find gripping and highly enjoyable. I can say no more.

Gary Higginson
 


 

 




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