This largely admirable set gets off to a rather unpromising start. Higginbottom suggests that Giles Swayne’s Magnificat links ‘the highly sophisticated world of evensong with more distant and unbridled modes of expression’. Though the choir realises the former ambience in exemplary fashion‚ it doesn’t hack it in the second category. It’s a notuncommon problem with Swayne’s pieces that draw on nonEuropean traditions: must be something to do with Anglicised vowel sounds.
From the Pygottattributed Quid Petis onwards‚ though‚ the choir is entirely in its element. If England has been a land without music Higginbottom demonstrates that it has engendered a lot of exceedingly beautiful noises. He sets out to celebrate affinities between the last years of the preReformation period and the late20th century blooming of devotional music. And his programme works well as an illustration of this premise and‚ perhaps more importantly‚ as a coherent musical unit.
The early 16th century is represented by some of the most distinguished exponents of frozen architecture in music. They stretch their own imagination as much as the perceptions of the listeners and the techniques of the performers‚ and there are times in these pieces when the trebles in particular seem to be extended a little too far: the pitching is accurate enough‚ but the timbre sometimes seems strained.
Amongst the moderns‚ Tavener was a clear choice. He’s widelyrecognised now‚ but Swayne and Harvey tend to get rather less exposure. Harvey’s range is considerable‚ from the tight control of his electronic music to his open improvisations with FrancesMarie Uitti. His two pieces here remind us how often the best progressive work is deeply rooted in tradition‚ extending the innovations of earlier eras rather than trashing them.