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

Release Date: 09/08/2009 
Label:  Avie   Catalog #: 2167   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  John FawkynerWilliam CornyshWalter LambeRichard Davy,   ... 
Conductor:  Stephen Darlington
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Oxford Christ Church Cathedral Choir
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

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
Read more 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
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Works on This Recording

Gaude rosa sine spina by John Fawkyner
Conductor:  Stephen Darlington
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Oxford Christ Church Cathedral Choir
Period: Renaissance 
Length: 16 Minutes 43 Secs. 
Notes: Director: Stephen Darlington. 
Salve regina by William Cornysh
Conductor:  Stephen Darlington
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Oxford Christ Church Cathedral Choir
Period: Renaissance 
Written: England 
Length: 15 Minutes 49 Secs. 
Notes: Director: Stephen Darlington. 
Magnificat by Walter Lambe
Conductor:  Stephen Darlington
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Oxford Christ Church Cathedral Choir
Period: Renaissance 
Length: 13 Minutes 2 Secs. 
Notes: Director: Stephen Darlington. 
In honore summe matris by Richard Davy
Conductor:  Stephen Darlington
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Oxford Christ Church Cathedral Choir
Period: Renaissance 
Written: England 
Length: 17 Minutes 48 Secs. 
Notes: Director: Stephen Darlington. 
Stabat mater by John Browne
Conductor:  Stephen Darlington
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Oxford Christ Church Cathedral Choir
Period: Renaissance 
Written: by 1490; England 
Length: 15 Minutes 28 Secs. 
Notes: Director: Stephen Darlington. 

Sound Samples

Gaude rosa sine spina: by John Fawkyner
Salve regina: by William Cornysh
Magnificat: by Walter Lambe
In honore summe matris: by Richard Davy
Stabat mater: by John Browne

Customer Reviews

Average Customer Review:  1 Customer Review )
 Wondrous music & performance March 31, 2014 By William A. (Roxbury, MA) See All My Reviews "This is a stellar performance of sublime music, and one of the few chances to hear pieces from the Eton Choirbook sung by the forces for which it was composed. The Choir of Christ Church Cathedral, with soloists from its ranks, sings with sensitivity and assurance and yet a natural unobtrusiveness. This music requires technical mastery but as well a sort of artistic stepping-back -- its theme is ontology not feeling. These gentle but yet unassumingly complex compositions unfold here with lambent intensity. Hearing this disk is like drilling down a mile or two into sediments of distant pasts and and finding, unaccountably, after the forbidding journey, a reservoir of blue skies, skirting clouds, warm breezes, and greenery. Which is to say 'getting' this music requires some work; its grammar will likely not be at first familiar. But some shock of oddness is apt for a musical vision of heaven. Thanks to the Christ Church choir and Stephen Darlington for exploring this vital repertoire with such care and grace." Report Abuse
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