Crown of Thorns - Eton Choirbook, Vol.2

Author: 
David Fallows

Crown of Thorns - Eton Choirbook, Vol.2

  • Stabat mater
  • Jhesu mercy
  • Stabat mater dolorosa
  • Stabat mater
  • A gentill Jhesu

The core of this record is the three grand settings of Stabat mater dolorosa that survive in the Eton Choirbook. They are by three of the most impressive composers in that wonderful collection: John Browne, Richard Davy and William Cornysh. According to its index, the manuscript once contained two further settings (including another by Cornysh) on pages that are now lost. But these three offer splendid access to the astonishing achievements of English music in the generation active around 1500. As John Milsom remarks in his note, there are some intriguing similarities between the settings while careful listening shows the distinctive features of the three composers.
Here The Sixteen are on good form: immaculately fluid, well in tune and for the most part beautifully balanced. Harry Christophers guides them lucidly through the formal complexities of the Davy and Browne; and if the Cornysh is made to seem rather more lumpy in design, that may be just because the singers knew it less well. Certainly they put their best and most expressive singing into the Browne, which stands as one of the finest examples of music's answer to the Perpendicular style in English architecture.
Two extended carols with steamy devotional texts are added to separate these pieces. Their thinner textures and more restrained style make a good contrast. Browne's Jesu, mercy sounds just a shade adipose in this performance; but Sheryngham's Ah, gentle Jesu—with a text attributed to the verbose and much reviled John Lydgate—flows with a breathtaking clarity.
Some listeners may regret the reluctance to use soloists in the reduced-voice sections of the Stabat mater settings: there is obvious room for argument on this, but the choirbook does use red ink for the texts here, and there are several passages, particularly in the Cornysh, that sound much too heavy with this larger ensemble. Subjectively speaking, these works benefit enormously from the apparently intended contrast between solo voices and the full chorus.'

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