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The Liberation of the Gothic
John BROWNE (fl. c.1480-1505)
Salve Regina I [17:51]
Stabat Mater [19:36]
Thomas ASHWELL (c.1478-1527)
Missa Ave Maria [42:21]
Graindelavoix / Björn Schmelzer
rec. 2017, Church of Saint John the Evangelist, Beaufays, Belgium
GLOSSA GCDP32115 [79:48]

The first thing to realise is that really we do not know what early Tudor polyphony actually sounded like. Certainly that is true as far as tempo or tactus, articulation, dynamics and phrasing are concerned. We cannot even be sure of the exact level of pitch. But there are some things we can be sure about:

1. The music was sung by only male voices…

2. …but with boy trebles one has to be careful to allow them time to circumvent the astonishingly high tessitura and long phrases, which these 15th-century composers demanded indeed; English music of this period enjoyed the higher tonal extensions.

3. They all sang from the same lectern over a huge manuscript.

4. The choirs seem to have consisted of at least sixteen personnel, with the emphasis on the trebles. According to Hugh Benham (Latin Church Music, 1977) there were seventeen singers at Eton in 1477.

We can ask whether Graindelavoix, a group of just eight closely recorded male and female singers, conform to some of these requirements, and whether it matters if they do not. Browne’s music has been recorded by the ‘great and the good’ for over a period of at least two decades. The Tallis Scholars, for example, on their disc devoted solely to Browne (Gimell 036) also have women on the upper parts. So do Tonus Peregrinus (Naxos 8.572640) and the Huelgas Ensemble (deutsche harmonia mundi 8876548852), both just singing the Stabat Mater. On the recent recordings on the Avie label, the choir of Christchurch Cathedral, Oxford (obviously with trebles) have recorded the Stabat Mater (AV2167) and both of Browne’s Salve Regina settings (AV2359). There are others but these will suffice for now. So in what way are these performances different?

All of the versions cited above are in what we can term the ‘Oxbridge tradition’: purity of line (no noticeable vibrato), a tempo which keeps the counterpoint moving and the rhythms clearly articulated, an English vowel quality with a lack of ornamentation, and a ringing head voice whenever possible. There could well be other qualities but these you will, I am sure, recognise. On the whole, it would be fair to say to say that Graindelavoix are not really interested in these traits. Why should they be if they come from a completely different tradition? If you know some of their other recordings, you will recognise the following qualities, for example on their ‘Colours, Blindness and Memorial’ disc (Glossa GCD P32105): a quite slow tactus, the use of portamenti within the polyphonic texture, ornamentation especially at cadences, and slight randomness in the balance.

Taking tempi first: how can I prove it? Browne’s iconic Stabat Mater in their hands lasts 19:36. The Tallis Scholars take 15:56, Christchurch Oxford 15:16 and – amazingly – the Huelgas Ensemble (all non-Oxbridge of course) 13:44. Similar figures can be applied to Browne’s Salve Regina. What is the effect of the slow tempo? Firstly, it seems that the extraordinary vital, complex and exciting rhythms are not clear, secondly, that as a listener you need greater powers of concentration and as a singer considerable stamina. But on the other side of the coin, Schmelzer’s direction of Ashwell’s Missa Ave Maria weighs in at 42:21. Incidentally, a performance of Ashwell’s similarly vast Missa Jesu Christi by the Christchurch Choir in 1998 (Metronome 1030/31) weighed in at a similar 43:21.

Now these will largely appear to be negative qualities to many, and indeed they often seem so to me. The singing, however, is astonishingly virtuoso and expressive – movingly so, also allowing the passing dissonances their full space and weight. You will never hear Tudor polyphony sung like this. My colleague at the Gramophone magazine Fabrice Fitch comments that “their usual ‘Corsican goatherd’ brand of vocal timbre is somewhat attenuated if not absent altogether”. I do not quite agree on that last point but I do agree when he says that their “microtonal inflections are less distracting than they have been in the past”.

Thomas Ashwell is known to have worked at Lincoln in 1508 and then at Durham from 1513; his style is certainly expansive. John Browne is a very shadowy figure. It is at Eton where he is assumed to have lived, breathed and had his being. Schmelzer, who says little about the composers but whose booklet notes take a bit of reading – a couple of efforts may be necessary – tries to make comparisons between this early Tudor polyphony of Ashwell c.1510 and the slightly earlier Browne c.1490, and the amazing Chapter house at Ely Cathedral. Hence the title of the disc. But by his own admission that was completed in 1321 during the period we now call ‘Decorated’ Gothic. The period between Ely’s magnificent lady chapel and Browne’s music was pierced by, amongst many things, the Black Death which changed the world. Artists just had a different mindset after 1360. A new, lighter and less complex form of architecture emerged which we call the ‘Perpendicular’. This is reflected in the more spacious music of the late fifteenth century compared with 150 years earlier. I applaud the attempt to draw parallels between music and architecture (is architecture frozen music?), but this comparison seems misplaced in Schmelzer’s lengthy essay.

However, if you ask me will I be keeping this CD, the answer would be definitely ‘yes’. I wrote above that we do not know how this music really sounded. It is also fascinating to hear a fine vocal group experiment in this way, which in the UK could not happen. Finally, the disc has made me hear this music with an utterly different pair of ears.

The recording at the baroque church in Belgium allows little of the building into its sound spectrum but the voices are well spaced and clear throughout. All texts are provided and well translated.

Gary Higginson

Previous review: Richard Hanlon

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