More Divine Than Human - Music From Eton Choirbook / Choir Of Christ Church Oxford

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In 1440 King Henry VI of England founded simultaneously two educational establishments to show his devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. These were ‘the College Roialle of our Ladie at Eton beside Windsor and….the College Roialle of our Ladie and St. Nicholas of Cambridge.’ Thus were established what became two of the most venerable seats of learning – and of liturgical music – in England: Eton College and King’s College, Cambridge.

At Eton, where the college actually opened its doors in 1443, evening devotion to the Virgin was prescribed in the statutes from the start, with the singers required to sing in the chapel an antiphon in her honour every evening – in Lent it was always to be the ‘Salve Regina’. Over the years a corpus of music was assembled at Eton and by the early sixteenth century a significant amount of it had been copied into that remarkable treasury of music, which survives to this day, the Eton Choirbook.

The Choirbook contains a substantial amount of music. Some composers are represented by just one piece, whereas John Browne has no less than fifteen of his pieces preserved in it. From this vast collection Stephen Darlington has chosen five pieces, all of them quite substantial and all of considerable interest. Music from the Choirbook has been recorded by many ensembles, not least by The Sixteen, but here Darlington offers us the authentic experience of hearing it sung by an all-male church choir which is just a little larger than the Eton establishment of the time: the Eton choir consisted of sixteen choristers and ten lay clerks while for this recording Christ Church’s choir comprised eighteen trebles, four altos and five each of tenors and basses.

Just before discussing the performances, it’s appropriate to note the reason for the well-chosen title of the CD. Stephen Darlington tells us in the booklet that in 1515 an Italian visitor to Eton described the singing he heard there as ‘more divine than human’.

I’m unsure if the music is presented in chronological order in the programme. Indeed, little is known about many of the composers whose music is included in the Choirbook, still less is it possible to date with precision the date of composition of individual pieces. However, to judge from the dates of birth and death of the featured composers, it seems plausible to suppose a rough chronology. Furthermore, the pieces do seem to grow in complexity and intricacy as the disc progresses. So listening to the contents of the disc in the order in which they’re presented makes a lot of sense, I think. It was interesting to come to this disc hot on the heels of reviewing a disc by the choir of Edinburgh Cathedral devoted to the music of John Taverner. Taverner’s music was probably written a little later than anything on this present disc and his output represented the high water mark of the English florid style. There’s nothing in this programme to match the sheer exuberance of Taverner’s music though one can sense that trait developing as the pieces succeed one another. Interestingly, Darlington’s choir are not as unbuttoned and open-throated as their Edinburgh peers – that’s not an implied criticism – and their smoother, more mellifluous style is appropriate, I think, to the slightly more sober, though no less interesting music that they have recorded here.

John Fawkyner’s name was completely new to me and, it seems, nothing is known of his life. Gaude rosa sine spina is one of two pieces by him in the Choirbook. It’s not a particularly elaborate piece. I think I’d describe it as patient music, since it makes its effect cumulatively. Stephen Darlington’s fine choir sing it with suitable patience too and build it up well so that the final, affirmative stanza makes the proper effect.

There were two composers named William Cornysh, the second (younger?) of whom died in 1523. It is thought that this setting of ‘Salve Regina’ is by the earlier Cornysh, who can claim a footnote in musical history as the very first informator choristorum at Westminster Abbey. His five-part ‘Salve Regina’ shows an advance on Fawkyner’s piece in that the music is richer in texture and harmony and the polyphony is more intricate. It’s also a very beautiful composition. The present performance is a splendid one. Not only is the music very skilfully sung but a fine sense of atmosphere is generated. Listening to it, I found it quite easy to conjure up a mental picture of a candlelit evening rendition in the Eton chapel.

Walter Lambe’s ‘Magnificat’ is an alternatim setting This is a fine piece in which the polyphony frequently sounds celebratory. Stephen Darlington leads a strong performance.

Equally successful is the account of Richard Davy’s In honore summe matris. This is a luxuriantly expansive piece. The technical aspects of the music are very clever for we read in Timothy Symons’ good notes that the piece contains passages for no less than nine different combinations of two-part writing. These are all well done and the sections for full choir are no less impressive. Towards the end, leading up to and during the closing ‘Amen’, Davy employs triplets in some of the parts. In my experience this rhythmic device is not that common in music of this period and it makes an exciting effect.

Finally we hear Browne’s ‘Stabat Mater’, one of the jewels in the Choirbook. As befits the text, the tone of the music is quite sombre at the start but the music opens up as it unfolds and much of the full choir writing is texturally rich. It’s an imposing piece, which becomes ever more impressive as it progresses, and the concluding ‘Amen’ is quite magnificent. The choir perform it splendidly, sustaining the long lines, which are musically and mentally taxing, expertly.

There’s some marvellous music here. Throughout this fine disc the singing of the Christ Church is cultured and very impressive. They display excellent control and the tone is full and consistently pleasing to hear. There’s always good clarity in the delivery of the part writing, no matter whether a small group or the full choir is singing. It’s obvious that they’ve been expertly trained by Stephen Darlington. The recorded sound is atmospheric and reports the choir with clarity and presence.

-- John Quinn, MusicWeb International

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: AV2167

  • UPC: 822252216721

  • Label: AVIE

  • Composer: John Browne, John Fawkyner, Richard Davy, Walter Lambe, William Cornysh

  • Conductor: Stephen Darlington

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Oxford Christ Church Cathedral Choir