Notes and Editorial Reviews
OUR LADY: Music from the Peterhouse Partbooks
Markdavin Obenza, cond; Byrd Ensemble
SCRIBE SRCD1 (56:25)
Ave Dei patris filia.
Ave rosa sine spinis
The Peterhouse Partbooks, now owned by Peterhouse,
Cambridge, contain a collection of choral works that were performed at Canterbury Cathedral around 1540, when Henry VIII’s Reformation was changing the landscape of English religious life. This Latin-texted repertoire (the Latin rite was obligatory in the Church of England until 1549) provides a unique snapshot of the cathedral’s musical life, in which a conservative dean and chapter clashed with the reforms of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer. Unfortunately, the partbooks are not complete; the tenor book and parts of the treble are missing. This album, titled
, is the result of a collaboration between Markdavin Obenza and his Seattle-based Byrd Ensemble and the British musicologist Nick Sandon, an authority on the Peterhouse Partbooks, who both reconstructed and completed the scores of the pieces on the recording and wrote the extensive and informative liner notes.
The choice of music for this recording is interesting in itself. Aside from Thomas Tallis, the other three composers, while quite respected in their day, are only recently being given their modern due; the four CDs devoted to Ludford’s music recently released by The Cardinall’s Musick on ASV are particularly fine. According to the ensemble’s website, both the Pasche and Ludford are recorded here for the first time, and, while both pieces are not the most masterly compositions of their era, they are fine pieces nonetheless, convincingly and skillfully interpreted by this fine young ensemble.
Obenza’s most significant accomplishment is creating what he calls a “unified” rather than “blended” choral sound with only two voices per part—not an easy task, yet one the Byrd Ensemble manages to achieve to splendid affect. In the extended duet passages of the Merbecke and three-part sections within the Ludford, it is difficult at times to tell whether one or two people are singing each line. The sopranos are crystal-clear, soaring to their highest notes with effortless grace yet never overbalancing the other sections, while the altos produce a focused brightness that can sometimes border on the reedy without crossing the line. The tenors’ sound is warm and lovely, but the lower two parts lack a bit of the incisiveness of the high voices, not so much, though, that the textures ever become muddled. From beginning to end, the ensemble’s commendable intonation highlights the Tudor composers’ deft control of harmonic tension as well as their penchant for harmonic cross-relations. All the singers approach the music with a gutsy intensity that is often sorely lacking in small choirs from both sides of the Atlantic, especially when approaching this repertoire.
A fairly wide soundstage helps bring out the complex polyphonic tapestry of the music, especially in sections like the fourth verse of Tallis’s
Ave rosa sine spinis
, where the lower voices predominate. The basses and baritones seem a bit recessed at times when compared to the soaring sopranos; only in moments like those does the balance seem less than superb. The lush acoustic of the recording space (not specified in the liner notes) adds just enough support to the sound without getting in the way.
FANFARE: Henry Lebedinsky
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