The Spy’s Choirbook: Petrus Alamire & The Court of Henry VIII

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COMPOSERS: Agricola,Desprez,Fevin,Ghiselin,Isaac and anon,Josquin,La Rue,Mouton,Strus,Thérache
LABELS: Obsidian
ALBUM TITLE: The Spy’s Choirbook: Petrus Alamire & The Court of Henry VIII
WORKS: Works by Mouton, Févin, Desprez, La Rue, Strus, Josquin, Thérache, Agricola, Ghiselin, Isaac and anon
PERFORMER: Alamire; English Cornett & Sackbutt Ensemble/David Skinner
CATALOGUE NO: CCL CD712

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‘Alamire’ is both the name of David Skinner’s ensemble, and of the scribe responsible for the collection recorded here. Besides being a scribe, Alamire was a spy; charged with double-dealing, he gifted this collection of renowned Franco-Flemish motets to Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon to prove his allegiance. For scholars, the collection is an invaluable cross-section of 16th-century Continental polyphonic styles. For listeners of this recording, though, it may be a struggle to hear differences between, for instance, the five versions of Dulces exuviae.

Skinner’s scholarly expertise both strengthens and weakens his conducting. Cadences, modal shifts and points of imitation steer his reading. Especially when the English Cornett & Sackbutt Ensemble joins the voices, Skinner illuminates the sophistication of Franco-Flemish motet writing. By binding performers to a strict pulse and modest dynamic range, however, he saps liveliness from the words. Affective contrasts are notably absent: the erotic Tota pulchra es (‘You are all fair, my love’) is executed in the same way as Sancta trinitas unuus Deus (‘Holy Trinity, one God have mercy on us’). The English Cornett & Sackbutt Ensemble, who here play both with and without singers, also seem uncharacteristically cautious. Altogether, this is a scholarly rather than an artistic achievement.

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Berta Joncus