More Divine than Human (Eton Choirbook)
The Eton Choirbook ranks among the most difficult music composed to be sung by children, namely the boy trebles of the countless choral foundations that dotted the British Isles in the late Middle Ages. In the last year or so, a concentrated group of recordings has appeared from some of the most renowned of those choral foundations, whose distant but direct descendants are really getting their collective teeth into the repertoire. This latest is very impressive, and I cannot recommend it too highly. The trebles here excel, both as soloists and, just as remarkably, when several sing together on the same line. In music as exposed on top as this can be, such unanimity is essential, but rare. Peter Quantrill praised this ensemble’s previous recording on this label (of Taverner’s Missa Gloria tibi trinitas), but I found it laboured and flat-footed, precisely because the tempi seem to have been chosen to accommodate trebles who struggled audibly with the music’s demands. Here, everything goes swimmingly.
Much of the Choirbook has already been recorded: Cornysh’s Salve regina and Browne’s Stabat mater dolorosa justifiably boast many interpretations, but very few with trebles, and these stand comparison with the finest. Davy’s In honore summe matris, clocking in at nearly 18 minutes, is one of the longest pieces in the manuscript, but I found myself warming more than usual to its composer’s garrulous manner. Seasoned Eton enthusiasts will want to own this because two very fine pieces appear on CD, as far as I’m aware, for the first time: Walter Lambe’s Magnificat and Fawkyner’s Gaude rosa sine spina. Of Fawkyner absolutely nothing is known, but his style is close to Browne’s, though lacking his quite startling individuality. The sound recording is both close enough to capture details and atmospheric enough to flatter the ear. Dare we hope for more of this, while these young voices are still in their prime?