The Liberation of the Gothic
John BROWNE (c. 1480-1505)
Salve regina [17:37]
Stabat mater [19:36]
Thomas ASHWELL (c. 1478-c. 1527)
Missa Ave Maria [42:21]
Graindelavoix / Björn Schmelzer
rec. 2017, L’Église Saint-Jean l'Evangéliste, Beaufays, Belgium
Full texts and translations included
GLOSSA GCDP32115 [79:48]
Björn Schmelzer is clearly a polymath: an anthropologist, a musicologist and – on this evidence – a conductor blessed with unbridled curiosity and adventure. As director of the Antwerp-based group Graindelavoix, he has overseen a fascinating series of recordings on the Glossa label over the last dozen years, often triggered by his extra-musical leanings. The starting point for the present disc was
a short documentary, made by the historian Paul Binski, about the decorative architecture that has survived in the remarkable 14th century Lady Chapel at Ely Cathedral in Cambridgeshire. Much of the ornate artwork created there, depicting the life and miracles of the Virgin Mary, was regarded as anathema during the Reformation and consequently destroyed. The exotic ornamentation of the architecture that surrounded and housed it survives, however, in particular the serpentine ogee arches which were quite unlike anything seen in England at the time they appeared in the early 1300s. Binski hypothesises that this style of architecture and the textures omnipresent in its background hint at the personification of the Virgin, and may have reflected a deliberate (or otherwise) attempt to project her corporeal femininity to pilgrims, forged as it was in the decorative style that perhaps foreshadows the dense, intricate polyphony that would be woven by English composers over the next 200 years.
Some may find such links speculative at best and futile at worst. Regardless of this, it is surely gratifying that the wonderful music that emerged in England during this period is now being taken up by some brilliant choirs outside the UK. Scott Metcalfe’s magnificent Blue Heron group from Boston, MA have recorded five volumes of material from the so-called Peterhouse Partbooks (four of them reviewed here, the fifth recently won the Gramophone’s 2018 Early Music award). Now this excellent Antwerp-based group have recorded music from the Eton Choirbook by John Browne, and a large mass by the virtually forgotten Thomas Ashwell. In fact, these two works by Browne have been recorded before. Both were laid down by the Tallis Scholars for a terrific Gimell release in 2004 (review), while the Stabat Mater features on an Eton Choirbook recital by Tonus Peregrinus on Naxos (review). As for Ashwell, most sources state that manuscripts of his two complete masses survived the Reformation. One, the Missa Jesu Christe (for 6 voices) was recorded by Christ Church Cathedral Choir under Stephen Darlington for Metronome (review). The Missa Ave Maria featured on a 2008 Harmonia Mundi disc La Quinta Essentia along with masses by Palestrina and Lassus (HM 901922). It was performed by the Huelgas Ensemble under Paul Van Nevel.
The accounts of the two Browne motets on this recording sound very different from those mentioned above. I do not think it is stretching the imagination to suggest that the innocent ear might struggle to recognise the music on this issue as English. One observation is that the idea of continental groups recording English polyphony is still relatively new, but Graindelavoix take this a stage further. In the Salve Regina their eight voices produce a gloriously full sound, apt for a piece which projects wave upon wave of melody. This is a spacious, lingering reading, noticeably slower than the Tallis Scholars’ account. Much more apparent, however, is the ornate, quasi-improvisational decoration that Schmelzer coaxes from his singers, intervals are bent, stretched and turned into an almost tangible connecting fabric. Those listeners who are steeped in the English Cathedral tradition may find it disconcerting but I found these adornments to be far from vulgar; they certainly seem to add something to the music. The Tallis Scholars may project the essential clarity of Browne’s flowing lines better, but both approaches convincingly draw out his seemingly infinite melodic gifts in their own ways. At times the tone of the middle voices tends toward a Gallic, rather nasal sound. I do not state this pejoratively, it is merely an observation. I do think the central section of this Salve Regina sounds a bit laboured compared to the Tallis Scholars’ more propulsive, driven account. Notwithstanding this impression, Graindelavoix’s sound is unquestionably beautiful, the recording is full and spacious. I commend it as a credible alternative to what might one expect from an English choir.
Turning to the Stabat Mater, in comparison to the Tallis Scholars’ efforts this performance certainly sounds more exotic, even perfumed, and I certainly found it seductive. Again, one unfamiliar with the work would struggle, I think, to place it as English late-Gothic. This account seems more expansive, enabling Schmelzer to create the space for some of Browne’s extraordinary dissonances to register more emphatically. The style encountered in this choir’s Salve Regina applies here too. As an approach it may seem provocative to some, but I find it most alluring, and by presenting the music in this way Schmelzer certainly adds credence to some of Paul Binski’s theories, and specifically how they might apply to pre-Reformation English cathedral music. While I found it somewhat revelatory to hear Browne sung like this, the Tallis Scholars’ reading is absolutely timeless and arguably speaks more directly (and chastely) to my English sensibilities. The Scholars are also superbly recorded in their usual Salle bolthole in deepest Norfolk. Anthony Pitts’s Naxos recording with Tonus Peregrinus also features some fine singing in perhaps more intimate sound, but good though their performance is, it ultimately feels just a little earthbound compared to the two other accounts under consideration here.
Little is known of Thomas Ashwell. Many texts seem to posit the idea that he was John Taverner’s teacher, but my (admittedly limited) research on the matter seems only to point to the pair of them being at Tattershall College in Lincolnshire contemporaneously. Musically speaking we know that both of Ashwell’s masses appear in the Forrest-Heyther partbooks used by Taverner during his time as Head of Music at Cardinal College, Oxford in 1526. The first layer of these contain just three masses: the two by Ashwell plus Taverner’s own superb Missa Gloria Tibi Trinitas which shares many formal and stylistic traits with the Missa Ave Maria recorded here. Which of these came first continues to be a matter of conjecture.
I had never heard either of Ashwell’s masses before embarking on this review. Given Schmelzer’s novel approach to Browne I thought it might be useful to hear van Nevel’s Harmonia Mundi recording of the Missa Ave Maria for comparison purposes, so I streamed it. Hearing either account leaves one in little doubt that this four-movement work is very fine indeed. The booklet with the new disc includes a detailed, scholarly and utterly readable essay by Björn Schmelzer which contextualises all the pieces on the disc, and justifies his artistic decisions, but at its heart is a detailed and personal analysis of this Ashwell mass.
The piece begins with the Gloria – Schmelzer reminds us that the Kyrie in a mass of this era was likely to have been presented simply as plainchant – and what we hear at its outset suggests something rather austere, before Graindelavoix’s more decorative approach kicks in. At the phrase Qui tollis peccata mundi the melodic lines in the high voices are sustained. They emerge delightfully and canonically from each other. The sopranos in this choir sound beatifically ethereal, while the ambience and depth of the recording suggests a larger group than the eight voices of Graindelavoix. Any decoration here is also seemingly incorporated with greater subtlety than in the Browne works. In terms of pacing the Gloria is perhaps more measured and stately than one’s actual perception. Indeed, Schmelzer takes ten minutes longer for the whole mass than Van Nevel does in his recording.
The Credo seems to be centred on the mid-range voices. By now it struck this listener at least that where melody was of prime importance for Browne, colour and texture – the weave of the work – is Ashwell’s main preoccupation. Notwithstanding Schmelzer’s always tasteful interventions, the Ashwell emerges as a more unequivocally English work than did the Browne motets. This perception is echoed in the Huelgas Ensemble’s leaner, swifter, more strait-laced reading. The Sanctus on the new disc is especially beautiful, the sustained lines of melody floated with light and air. Schmelzer’s more measured pace enables the power of the choir to be withheld at points and more gradually released, which only intensifies the experience for the listener.
Schmelzer justifies the especially slow pace of the Agnus Dei in order better to realise the flexible physical characteristics of the panel as an attempt in his words “to embody the liquid feeling associated with mysticism”. I think he is successful; the sense of repose conveyed by the members of Graindelavoix is palpable and wonderfully sustained. If the Van Nevel performance is perhaps a little more sober (it is certainly more fleet of foot), I do think the beauties of this piece emerge far more colourfully in Schmelzer’s reading. Other listeners may disagree; irrespective of this, Ashwell’s Missa Ave Maria strikes me as a major find. The singing of Graindelavoix is as effortlessly accomplished as the recording is atmospheric. Schmelzer’s engaging and learned essay completes a thoroughly thought-provoking, beautifully packaged release.