The Sun Most Radiant - Music from The Eton Choirbook Vol. 4
John BROWNE (fl.c.1490)
Salve Regina I
[15.01]; Salve Regina II [18.47]
William HORWOOD (c.1430-1484)
Gaude flore virginali a 5
William STRATFORD (c.1500)
Magnificat a 4
The Choir of Christchurch Cathedral Oxford/Stephen Darlington
rec. 14-16 March 2016, Chapel of Merton College, Oxford
AVIE AV2359 [68.42]

This CD takes its title from the words of the antiphon set by William Horwood in his Gaude flore virginali. ‘For as the light of the day so clear/comes the sun most radiant”. This is the premiere recording of Horwood's large-scale five-part work.

This disc is the fourth in Christchurch Cathedral’s investigations into the astonishing collection known as The Eton Choirbook copied in the last decades of the fifteenth century (reviews of Volume 1 ~ Volume 2). Nevertheless it’s worth recapping on the discs available of this repertoire. The Sixteen in the 1990s put together five CDs under Harry Christophers (review), originally on Collins Classics with about twenty-five pieces recorded alongside shorter contemporary works. In 2011 Tonus Peregrinus brought out one disc on Naxos (8.572840 - review) and the following year the Huelgas Ensemble did likewise on Deutsche Harmonia Mundi (88765408852 - review). By this time about thirty pieces - out of almost fifty which are performable - were available but all of these discs had women’s voices on the top part.

With the present Avie CDs we have boys singing the top line just as would have been the case originally, and a different sound-world is therefore created. The tessitura is quite taxing for boys as are the rhythms. Therefore the musicianship required is demanding. It's thought that boys in the fifteenth century did not lose their treble voices until they were at least fifteen. By then they had at least eight years of experience behind them.

With the recording of his five-part Gaude flore virginali both of Horwood’s surviving works are now available. The other is a five-part Magnificat on the Huelgas Ensemble’s disc. Horwood can be considered an earlier figure than John Browne and Richard Wylkynson. Horwood's use of curious part crossing and cadential figures is notable. He is known to have worked at Lincoln Cathedral and this antiphon was still in use fifty years after his death. The text compares the Virgin to the “Splendour of light” and the “flower of virgins” with each verse opening with “Rejoice”. Beginning with two voices a third is added but by the repetition of ‘Gaude’ all five are in. The next verse begins with the top two voices before all five join at the next ‘Gaude’. The following verse is for contra-tenor and bass. After a while the trebles and the tenor join; in other words there is, as is usual in this repertoire, a regular change of vocal colour and variety of texture.

I’m not sure why Darlington decided to record William Stratford’s Magnificat. It is, after all, available both on the Tonus Peregrinus disc and in volume five of the Sixteen’s set (‘The Voices of Angels’). Incredibly he takes an overly slow-paced twenty minutes over the piece. The Sixteen emphases the density and exuberance of the counterpoint in its performance which lasts seven and a half minutes less. The scoring is for men’s voices but Tonus Peregrinus, who take just less than fifteen minutes over the piece, divides the polyphony (controversially) between sections for the men and sections an octave higher for the women’s voices. For me, this works and helps one to retain interest. Christophers likewise makes the piece exciting and vital. Darlington’s singers are superb and manage the incredible melismatic phrases well but it all seems to drag and attention can wane in the mélange of seemingly aimless counterpoint. How it originally sounded could make a fascinating discussion. The composer came from the monastery at Stratford now in east London and only five other Magnificats survive from the original twenty-four listed in the manuscript index. This is William Monk's only surviving work.

John Browne is now recognised as the greatest composer of his age. It's good to have his two versions of the Salve Regina side by side. This is the only other piece on this disc which involves the trebles. Salve Regina I has been recorded by The Tallis Scholars (Gimell 036 - review). Again Darlington’s performance proves to be more leisurely - here by about ninety seconds. It doesn’t seem to matter though. Indeed Peter Phillips, as is often the case, drives the polyphony, especially in the full sections, a little too much. This setting is for the standard five-part choir with the plainsong ‘Maria ergo unxit pedes’ quoted twice in the tenor part. This indicates that the setting was meant for a Maundy Thursday service of feet-washing. Browne varies the vocal forces persuasively although the boys' role is very demanding in places.

Like the Horwood, Browne’s Salve Regina II is a premiere recording. Again it is just for tenors and basses divided two and three. With this piece we now have on CD all of Browne’s surviving nine sacred works, five of which are scored just for men. The plainchant used this time is ‘Venit dilectus meus’, which is suitable for the Feast of the Assumption. This was and still is, a big day in the Roman Church and is still celebrated at Eton where this work was almost certainly composed. The performance is rich and the long, lyrical lines which dovetail into solos and the full choir are unique to Browne and here are brought out superbly. The technical challenges of breathing and phrasing are wonderfully overcome. This is very fine singing but then it has to be because in this and throughout the disc Darlington’s tactus, as mentioned above, is slow at less than one beat per second. On earlier discs, and I especially note the Salve Regina setting by John Hampton on volume 3, the tactus is about crotchet=60 which I still feel is correct, although I’m probably getting into hot water.

The CD comes with the beautiful manuscript illustrations we have had on other discs; this time Browne’s Salve Regina I and the Horwood. The texts are fully given and adequately translated. There is an essay by Timothy Symons, which says much to fascinate about Browne’s pieces but very little about the other half of the CD.

If you are new to this repertoire then I would suggest that you begin with an earlier volume - perhaps number two - but if you love this music then you will want to run down to your CD shop immediately.

Gary Higginson

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