Star of Heaven: The Eton Choirbook Legacy
Works by Cornysh, Cooke, Lambe, Phibbs, et al
The Sixteen/Harry Christophers
CORO COR 16166 66:57 mins
In the 1990s The Sixteen’s series devoted to the Eton Choirbook was required listening for lovers of Tudor polyphony. As Harry Christophers’s choir embarks on its 40th anniversary year it’s no surprise that it should revisit such a landmark project – but this time there’s a twist. Works by Cornysh and Lambe are paired with specially-commissioned companion pieces setting the same texts; and to complement Robert Wylkynson’s imposing nine-part Salve Regina, there’s a James MacMillan setting of O Virgo prudentissima based on a Wylkynson fragment. To end, Christophers goes off-piste with Stephen Hough’s Hallowed, a lushly-conceived sequence straddling Genesis, an eighth-century Chinese poem, a Navajo Indian text and a harmonisation of the Pater Noster plainsong cut with a blessing heard at the outset.
Given its scale, Wylkynson’s Salve Regina establishes a potent centre of gravity. But the MacMillan offers an enrapt kaleidoscope of adroitly manipulated textures and mesmeric wordless carolling, while Phillip Cooke’s contrasting response to Cornysh’s sonorously all-male Ave Maria, mater Dei is enticingly ethereal thanks to a pair of off-stage trebles intensifying its incantatory allure. Across the disc, complex polyphonic edifices are negotiated with Christophers’s intuitive suavity, and stretches of prayerful serenity are enlivened with a gear-changing dramatic lift here, a rhythmic nicety there. Forty years on, The Sixteen’s supple, fastidiously nuanced soundworld continues to serve ‘ancient’ and ‘modern’ with aplomb.