A Ghentill Jhesus: Music from the Fayrfax Manuscript
English music around 1500 is most often described in terms of the massive sacred pieces in the Eton Choirbook, cathedral music on the grandest scale and bursting with ideas. But the chamber-song repertory of the time is in many ways even more powerful, for it has a discipline of form and of contrapuntal detail that makes its significantly more direct in its communication, more emotionally overwhelming. This music is not heard much, partly because it is extremely difficult to sing, and partly perhaps because John Stevens' complete edition of the repertory was published only ten years ago. But it is music to treasure.
Edgar Fleet has selected eight of the finest works from this repertory. He has confined himself to the devotional works, for these have an extraordinarily rich content: they set poems that come at the very end of a superb English poetry tradition stretching back several hundred years; and every note plays its part in the anguished and passionate effect. One can look at the great architecture of the time and still agree that these songs are the richest and most refined cultural manifestation of the early Tudor era.
For its selection of music, then, the record deserves a warm welcome. But it would be difficult to argue that Pro Cantione Antiqua entirely match up to the challenge of these works. Much of the ensemble and intonation are rough; and too often the musical lines are staid or lumpy when they need to flow with effortless precision and breadth of phrasing. The singers are of course excellent and they are joined by the wonderful soprano Rachel Bevan, who I hope to hear much more in the future. But with due deference to all the talent assembled here, it sounds as though little time was given to rehearsal.
Two of the pieces that work best here—the Sheryngham and the Cornyshe—happen to appear on the Hilliard Ensemble's ''Songs For A Tudor King'' on Saga (SAGA5461, 8/78—nla). In line, intonation, musical sense and recorded the sound the Hilliard record is immeasurably better.'