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"The Call of the Phoenix: Rare 15th-century English Church Music"

Orlando Consort

rec: Oct 31 - Nov 3, 2001, East Lothian (Scotland), St Mary's Parish Church
Harmonia mundi - HMU 907297 (70'52")

anon: Audivi vocem a 4; Ave regina celorum a 4; Gaude virgo a 3 bcd; O pulcherrima mulierum a 3 bcd; O sanctissime presul a 3 abd; Sanctus a 3 abc; Stella celi a 4; John Benet: Gloria - Credo a 3 bcd; John Dunstaple: Salva scema sanctitatis/ Salve salus servulorum/Cantant celi agmina a 4; Forest: Tota pulcra es a 3 abc; Walter Frye: Ave regina celorum a 3 acd; Walter Lambe: Stella celi a 4; Richard Mowere: Beata Dei genitrix a 3 acd; John Plummer: Anna mater matris Christi a 4; Tota pulcra es a 3 abc; John Pyamour: Quam pulcra es a 3 bcd; John Trouluffe: Nesciens mater a 3 abd

Robert Harre-Jones, alto a; Charles Daniels b, Angus Smith c; Donald Greig, baritone d

"Rare and exquisite sacred music from 15th-century England, marking the rise of the so-called 'English manner' - a style prized for its suave melody, fluid rhythms and pleasing consonance". That is, according to the text on the back of this CD, what we can expect from this recording. It is a quite accurate description of what this CD is all about.
The 15th century in England - that does remind immediately of the probably most famous collection of sacred music in England, the Eton Choirbook. And this CD does indeed contain music from that manuscript, but only one work - Walter Lambe's Stella celi, and certainly not its most characteristic, since it is only for four voices, while the collection is dominated by large-scale works. One of the attractions of this recording is the choice of some anonymous works and pieces by unknown composers as Richard Mowere and John Trouluffe. The music dates from the time around 1420 to the last decade of the 15th century. The style of composing changed considerably during that time, but there are also quite a number of differences between compositions from about the same period. Most works are votive antiphons, meaning works with texts which weren't an indispensable part of the liturgy.
The earliest work is probably John Dunstaple's Salve scema sanctitatis, a so-called isorhythmic motet, a form of motet that is based on a repeated rhythmic pattern found in one or more of the voices. Otherwise these voices are very independent from each other, which is underlined by the use of three different texts: tenor I and II sing "Cantant celi agmina laudes", the triplum "Salve scema sanctitatis" and the quadruplum "Salve salus servulorum". This style is often associated with "formal rigour", like Gareth Curtis calls it in his liner notes. But I find these sharp rhythms extremely exciting: there is no reason why a "formal" way of composing couldn't be very expressive. Most other pieces on this CD show a large variation in style. Some have moved very far from the rhythms one finds in Dunstaple's music, in some pieces the voices are quite independent from one another, while others are marked by frequent imitation between the voices. A couple of antiphons contain some notable declamatory passages. This recording demonstrates that even without a large number of voices as we find them in many pieces from the Eton Choirbook the English sacred music of the 15th century is able to make a strong impression.

The performance by the Orlando Consort is almost perfect. Both the rhythmically demanding compositions as well as the more fluent pieces - which gave birth to the term contenance angloise to mark English sacred music of that time - are performed very well. The only criticism could be the balance within the ensemble: Charles Daniels' voice is a little stronger and sharper than Angus Smith's and therefore tends to dominate. Robert Harre-Jones' voice is also perhaps a little too sweet and smooth in comparison to Daniels and also Donald Greig. But on the whole I am very impressed by this recording, which is throwing a new light on a very interesting period in the history of polyphony.

Johan van Veen ( 2003)

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