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The Eton Choirbook

[I] "Music from the Eton Choirbook"
Tonus Peregrinus
Dir: Antony Pitts
rec: July 11 - 14, 2011, London, St Alban the Martyr, Holborn
Naxos - 8.572840 (© 2012) (79'00")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - translations: E
Cover & track-list

John BROWNE (fl c1480-1505): Stabat mater a 6; Richard DAVY (c1465-1538): Passio Domini in ramis palmarum a 4 (exc); Hugh KELLYK (fl late 15th C): Magnificat a 5; Walter LAMBE (1450/51?-1504 or later): Nesciens mater a 5; plainchant: Nesciens mater; WILLIAM, monk of Stratford (fl c1500): Magnificat a 4; Robert WYLKYNSON (c1475/80-1515 or later): Jesus autem transiens/Credo in unum Deum a 13

Lisa Beckley, Rebecca Hickey, Joanna Forbes L'Estrange, soprano; Kathryn Knight, contralto; Alexander L'Estrange, alto; Richard Eteson, Alexander Hickey, Benedict Hymas, Matthew Long, Antony Pitts, tenor; Alex Knight, baritone; Francis Brett, Nick Flower, Stephen Rice, bass

[II] "The Eton Choirbook"
Huelgas Ensemble
Dir: Paul Van Nevel
rec: July 18 - 19, 2011, Saint-Sauvant (Charente-Maritime), Église Saint-Sylvain
deutsche harmonia mundi - 88765408852 (© 2012) (69'25")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E/D
Cover & track-list

John BROWNE (fl c1480-1505): Stabat mater a 6; William HORWOOD (?-c1484?): Magnificat a 5; Edmundus (?) STURTON (fl early 16th C): Gaude virgo mater Christi a 6; John SUTTON (late 15th C): Salve Regina a 7; Robert WYLKYNSON (c1475/80-1515 or later): Salve Regina a 9

Griet De Geyter, Nadia Lavoyer, Poline Renou, soprano; Els Van Laethem, Sabine Lutzenberger, Michaela Riener, mezzo-soprano; Terry Wey, alto; Stefan Berghammer, Bernd Oliver Fröhlich, Tom Phillips, Achim Schulz, Matthew Vine, tenor; Erik Van Nevel, baritone; Joel Frederiksen, Tim Scott Whiteley, bass

The Eton Choirbook is one of the most important and most famous sources of English polyphony from the era before the Reformation. It was put together around 1500 and originally comprised 94 compositions, all of them sacred works in Latin. Only 64 works have survived, some of them incomplete. The corpus which is left consists of 54 motets, nine settings of the Magnificat and one Passion. The manuscript is also remarkable for the precision with which the music is written down. It contains musica ficta markings - which can be compared with modern accidentals - and also indicate which passages are for reduced voices.

This kind of music is not written to express the text. If a piece includes some strong dissonances - such as the Salve Regina by Johannes Sutton (towards the end) - that has mostly no relation with the text. That doesn't mean that there is no connection at all. The probably most striking example is in the Stabat mater by John Browne, not by accident appearing on both discs reviewed here. The way he has set the screams of the crowds: "Crucify him, crucify" is penetrating and makes a lasting impression. Less spectacular but no less eloquent are the literally endless melismas at the last line from Gaude Virgo Mater Christi by Edmundus Sturton, illustrating the text "in perenni gaudio" - "in everlasting joy".

Many composers represented in the Eton Choirbook are little known. The selection which Tonus Peregrinus has made is the less adventurous, whereas Paul Van Nevel has chosen some pieces which seem to have been recorded for the first time, by John Sutton, William Horwood and Edmund Sturton. The latter's Christian name is unsure, as it has been added later. In New Grove it is suggested that he might be identical with a William Sturton who was Genleman of the Chapel Royal in the first decade of the 16th century. The identity of John Sutton is also unknown; the Salve Regina in the Eton Choirbook is the only composition under his name which has come down to us. William Horwood is called "Horewud" in the tracklist, which apparently is a contemporary spelling of his name. He is another master about whom little is known; only five compositions have been preserved. He worked for some time in Lincoln Cathedral. His compositions belong to the oldest in the Eton Choirbook.

More is known about John Browne. It is assumed that he sang as a boy in Eton College and may have gone to New College Oxford later on. In 1490 a certain John Browne was one of the chaplains of the household of John de Vere, Earl of Oxford, one of the most prominent aristocratic household chapels at the time. Browne is considered the main composer in England between Dunstaple and Taverner. Eighteen pieces from his pen are known, some on English texts. Robert Wylkynson was connected to Eton College for sure; he was active as a singing clerk and as informator choristarum. The Eton Choirbook includes nine compositions by him; only three have survived complete. One of them is Jesus autem/Credo in Deum, a canon for 13 voices on the text of the Apostles' Creed, preceded by the chant Jesus autem transiens which moves from top to bottom through the various parts. Every entry has the name of one of the twelve apostles, beginning with Petrus, and ending with Matthias, the 'last' apostle who was chosen after Jesus' Ascension to replace Judas. On the Naxos disc it is performed by the male voices of Tonus Peregrinus alone.

Walter Lambe is also one of the better-known composers represented in the Eton Choirbook. He was probably born in Salisbury and elected scholar of Eton College in 1467. In later years he worked for some time at St George's Chapel, Windsor. The Magnificat a 5 is one of only two compositions by Hugh Kellyk, both included in the Eton Choirbook. We know absolutely nothing about the composer. Almost nothing is known about William, monk of Stratford, who is represented in the Eton Choirbook with just one piece, the Magnificat a 4 recorded by Tonus Peregrinus. The description in the book indicates that he was a monk of the Cistercian Abbey of Stratford-atte-Bowe in Essex.

Lastly, Richard Davy: it is known that in his early years he was a scholar at Magdalen College, Oxford, but his activities from 1494 onwards are impossible to establish. There are various sources referring to a Richard Davy, but whether that is the same person is not known. He is one of the best-represented composers in the Eton Choirbook, and some of his compositions are also known from other sources. He is resposible for the first setting of the Passion in England, which unfortunately has been preserved incomplete.

It is unfortunate that Tonus Peregrinus decided to include this piece in its recording, and only an extract of it to boot. We really need a complete recording of this important work. It is surprising that just one recording has ever been made, by the Purcell Voices under the direction of Grayston Burgess. I have that recording in my collection on LP, but as far as I know it has never been reissued on CD. Moreover, the interpretation is stylistically rather outdated.

Whether a complete recording by Tonus Peregrinus would be really satisfying is another matter. This performance of an extract isn't an unqualified success. Benedict Hymas delivers a good performance of the part of the Evangelist which is set for a solo voice. However, Francis Brett's accound of the part of Christ is too pathetic and should be more 'neutral'. The words of Pilate and his wife and the turbae are set for the whole ensemble.

These two discs were released at about the same time. It is a matter of good fortune that they share just one piece. However, they are not really comparable anyway, mainly because of the recording technique which was used for Tonus Peregrinus' performances. That is explained by Geoff Miles, the recording engineer, in the booklet. One of the features of the repertoire from the Eton Choirbook is its density. That makes the transparency of the Naxos recording all the more remarkable. I am not sure whether this is entirely due to the technique which is claimed to have been used here for the first time. After all, recording is not just a matter of technique but also of the skills and the sensitive ears of the recording engineer. Whatever, there can be no doubt that Geoff Miles has done an excellent job.

It is not often that one can hear almost every single part in this repertoire. That can be a mixed blessing, though: the wobble in some of the voices of Tonus Peregrinus is more clearly exposed here than would probably have been the case with a different recording. It also raises a fundamental question: did composers want every single voice to be heard? Or was the density rather intentional, in order to create an overwhelming effect. This has inspired Paul Van Nevel to write at the beginning of his liner-notes: "Listeners are advised to partake of the contents of this CD in moderate doses. With their complex, melismatic style, these long works induce a degree of emotion that borders on a state of trance, so it is best to listen to no more than one a day. After all, no one would visit five cathedrals in the space of a single day".

Well, some tourists really do. Personally I have no problems listening to a disc with this repertoire at a stretch. However, I understand what he means: there is no reason to listen to a disc like this from beginning to end. The overwhelming effect comes much better off in Van Nevel's recording than in Tonus Peregrinus's. Both ensembles are almost of the same size: 15 (Huelgas Ensemble) vs 13 (Tonus Peregrinus). The singing is very different. I have already mentioned the transparency in the latter's recording. It may be nice to hear all the parts once in a while, but it goes at the cost of the ensemble which is further damaged by the vibrato in some of the voices. The singing is rather straightforward, whereas the Huelgas Ensemble's performance is characterised by subtle dynamic inflections and a much better blending of the voices. Tonus Peregrinus performs the passages for reduced forces with solo voices, whereas Van Nevel uses more voices per part.

All in all I prefer the recording of the Huelgas Ensemble. However, the recording technique used by Naxos and the transparency which seems its effect results in a different perspective on the repertoire from the Eton Choirbook. Those who have a special interest in the polyphony of the renaissance and this source in particular should definitely consider it.

Johan van Veen (© 2013)

Relevant links:

Huelgas Ensemble
Tonus Peregrinus

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