ALBUM TITLE: Choirs of Angels: Music from the Eton Choirbook, Vol. 2
WORKS: Music from the Eton Choirbook, Vol. 2
PERFORMER: Choir of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford/Stephen Darlington
CATALOGUE NO: AV2184
Until fairly recently, discs by the choir of Christ Church Cathedral tended to concentrate on music from the time of Henry Purcell onwards. Then came some early 16th-century John Taverner recordings, and in 2009 the first volume of music from the Eton Choirbook with music by John Fawkyner, William Cornysh, Walter Lambe, Richard Davy and John Browne. Now we have Volume 2, and with it another chance to marvel at this amazingly florid English music from around 1500.
There are other recordings of this repertory (notably the five-CD selection by The Sixteen on the Coro label), but the performances here are undoubtedly among the best. Partly this is because the pace is well-judged and spacious (Brown’s O Maria, for example, is three minutes longer here than on the version by The Sixteen), and the voices are exceptionally nimble and focused. The duetting in the ‘tertio vero loco’ section of Lambe’s O Maria plena is superb, even if the downward transposition robs some of the higher notes of their intensity.
That said, there are a few details in the Oxford choir’s approach that raise questions, such as their tendency to sharpen almost every leading note, and the occasional introduction of an harmonic ‘false relation’ (for example, the manufactured F-sharp/F-natural clash in the final moments of Davy’s Salve Jesu) when such devices are typically found in music of some 60 years later or more.
To my mind, the best composer on the disc is John Browne; we know very little about him, but his O Maria evinces a glorious sound from this accomplished choir, a sound to which the recording techniques do full justice.