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Star of Heaven: The Eton Choirbook Legacy
Plainsong Nesciens mater [0:41]
Walter LAMBE (1450-1504)
Nesciens mater
[4:19]
Joseph PHIBBS (b.1974)
Nesciens mater
[4:28]
William CORNYSH (1465-1523)
Ave Maria, mater Dei
[3:19]
Phillip COOKE (b.1980)
Ave Maria, mater Dei
[6:17]
Sir James MacMILLAN (b.1959)
O Virgo prudentissima
[12:43]
Walter LAMBE Stella cli
[6:27]
Marco GALVANI (b.1994)
Stella cli
[6:01]
Robert WYLKYNSON (c.1450-1515)
Salve Regina
[14:05]
Stephen HOUGH (b.1961)
Hallowed
: In blessing (Genesis 22: 17-18) [1:35]; Staying the night in a mountain temple [1:20]; Song of the Earth [2:22];
Pater Noster [3:18]
The Sixteen/Harry Christophers
rec. Church of St Augustine’s, Kilburn, London, 2018
Texts and translations included
Reviewed as 24/96 download with pdf booklet from thesixteenshop.com.
CORO COR16166 [66:53] 

The Sixteen were the first in the field to offer substantial selections of music from the Eton Choirbook, that most important relic of the music largely lost at the Reformation – and even then, it’s in bad shape, with a third of the original missing. Their five earlier recordings have been gathered together on COR16040 and remain available separately (COR16026, COR16012, COR16022, COR16018 and COR16002).

The Tallis Scholars also recorded the music of two of the principal composers in the book, John Browne (CDGIM036, or better value on CDGIM209, Tudor Church Music I, 2 CDs for one – Bargain of the Month) and, earlier even than the first of The Sixteen recordings, William Cornysh, secular and sacred music (CDGIM014; Gaude virgo mater Christi from this CD is included on Tudor Church Music I)1.

Other distinguished recordings have appeared from Christ Church, Oxford (Avie, 5 separate CDs, or complete on AV2395 – review of Volume 5), the Huelgas Ensemble (DHM 88765408852 – review and summary of other recordings) and Tonus Peregrinus (Naxos 8.572840 – review review). Nevertheless, those Coro recordings remain of great value: see my article. They are available from thesixteenshop.com for 7.99 (mp3), 10 (flac or alac) or 10.50 (CD) each.

As my previous reviews of these Coro recordings have been from mp3 downloads, I took the opportunity to obtain lossless versions to refresh my appreciation of these ground-breaking performances, which they assuredly did. Incidentally, thesixteenshop.com offers one of the smoothest download facilities available (apart from the fact that Volume IV has somehow become Volume VI!).

Now The Sixteen put themselves back in the frame with a supplementary volume of music from three of the composers in the collection, Lambe, Cornysh and Wylkynson, together with works by contemporary composers on the same themes and often the same texts, commissioned by The Genesis Foundation. Does it work?

Certainly, similar collections can and do work, especially if focused on a common theme, such as Christmas or the Armistice, and especially if the new compositions, however modern in tone, also demonstrate an inheritance from the music of the past. It doesn’t always work, however; Robert Hugill’s review of Voces 8’s A Choral Tapestry makes it apparent that one such collection didn’t cohere for him. His chief objection centres on the lack of a central theme, which is not the case in respect of the new Coro, where all the music, except the works by Stephen Hough is centred on the Virgin Mary.  For three of the texts a modern setting immediately follows one from the Choirbook.

My response depended on two things: how well the music from the Choirbook stands up against other recordings and how well the old and new work in juxtaposition. Lambe’s Nesciens mater is available in several other recordings – on Volume 3 of the Christ Church series (AV2314 – review) and the Naxos CD, together with The Sixteen’s own earlier selection of music from the collection (Meridian CDE84504) and Christmas Music from Medieval and Renaissance Europe (The Sixteen again, Hyperion CDA66263 – review; download now costs 6.99) and Music at All Soul’s, Oxford (The Cardinall’s Musick, ASV CDGAU196, download only – review: NB passionato link no longer available).

It was certainly no hardship to listen to all these very fine recordings of the Lambe – just don’t ask me to nominate a ‘best buy’, but The Sixteen certainly hold their own against their earlier selves (twice) and the other recordings.

Tonus Peregrinus (Naxos) take the music very slowly, but they make as good a case for doing so as The Sixteen make for their faster tempo. As he did on Hyperion and Meridian, Harry Christophers prefaces the setting with the Sarum plainchant, which Tonus Peregrinus, rather oddly, relegate to a later track. Stephen Darlington, too, takes his Christ Church Choir a little more slowly than Christophers and The Sixteen, though nowhere near as slowly as Tonus Peregrinus. Incidentally, it’s one of the advantages of streaming or downloading this Avie album that Nesciens mater comes as a bonus track, not available on CD, as it brings the playing time over the 80-minute mark. Of course, it’s also a plus for the whole Avie series that the music is sung by the kind of all-male choir for whom it was intended – not something that I’d go to the stake for, but a worthwhile consideration.

Listening to The Cardinall’s Musick perform this piece reminded me what a shame it is that so many of their ASV recordings are hard to obtain or download only, without booklet, and how fortunate we are that Hyperion rescued their excellent series of recordings of the music of Byrd when Universal dropped the baton.

William Cornysh’s short Ave Maria, mater Dei appears on the Tallis Scholars’ recording of his music and on their miscellaneous collection Renaissance Radio (CDGIM212, another 2-for-1 offering – Recording of the Month). The Scholars’ Cornysh CD remains well worthwhile; don’t be put off by the fact that it’s still at full price, that it comes with that mean-looking painting of Henry VII on the cover, or that three items are available in their 2-for-1 offers1. It can be downloaded from hyperion-records.co.uk, with pdf booklet, for 7.99. I really can’t offer you a preference between their performance and that of The Sixteen on the new recording.

As for how well old and new meld on the new Coro recording, that is, of course, a matter of individual taste. There’s nothing here to set the teeth on edge of all but the most hardened haters of modern music.  There’s much that I appreciated and think I shall come to enjoy with repeated listening. Sir James Macmillan’s O Virgo prudentissima is my clear and unsurprising first choice – and I really did listen with an innocent ear, knowing that some of his music was in the programme but not which, at first.

I need hardly add that The Sixteen make a very good case both for the music from the Eton Choirbook – good enough to remind us that their earlier recordings are a must, either individually or as a set – and for the new music. The recording in 24-bit format is very good and, at 14.50, not much more expensive than the CD.

The booklet is particularly valuable for containing notes on their own compositions by the contemporary composers – and, yes, that is Stephen Hough the pianist who composed the multi-faith work on the last four tracks.

All in all, then, while this new release has taken me back with great pleasure to The Sixteen’s earlier recordings of the music from the Eton Choirbook – and to the others that I have mentioned – I have very much enjoyed it in its own right.

1 As well as Cornysh’s Gaude virgo mater Christi on Tudor Church Music I, Ave Maria on Renaissance Radio, Salve Regina and Gaude virgo mater Christi are on Sacred Music in the Renaissance I, GIMBX301, 3 CDs for the price of 2 – review. Download from hyperion-records.co.uk.

Brian Wilson




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