The Rose and the Ostrich Feather
This is a recording of wonderful music, wonderfully performed. Harry Christophers and The Sixteen entered the catalogue in 1980 with a recording of music from the Eton Choirbook for Meridian. More than ten years on, and some of the singers have remained the same, but the overall sound is now much more polished, particularly in terms of phrasing, ensemble and the chord-balancing, this last being the key to this extraordinarily sonorous repertory. Their technical refinement is matched by a more thoughtful interpretative approach, making this the best recording to date from The Sixteen. I found listening to it a constantly arresting and, at times, moving experience. Of course, the genius of the music is the true source of inspiration, but these exciting performances capture the flavour of it so perfectly it is hard to imagine it shown off to better advantage.
The pieces are well selected and the Peter Greenawayesque title explained in fascinating notes from JM. Many of the works preserved in the Eton Choirbook, though chosen for use in that chapel, can be associated directly or indirectly with the Chapel Royal: the royal emblems of the ostrich feather and the white rose are explicitly referred to in the two songs included on the recording: Edmund Turges's forthright From stormy wyndis and the gentler and charmingly simple anonymous This day day dawes. JM rightly points to the close intermingling of the sacred and the secular at this time as a justification for the inclusion of these pieces (the symbol of the white rose referring, for example, not only to Elizabeth of York but also to the Virgin), but in fact the melodious simplicity of, in particular, This day day dawes serves as the perfect foil for the densely-worked, sonorous counterpoint of the Eton pieces. (Note the contrast, too, between the vernacular, here sung with 'restored' pronunciation, treated in syllabic fashion, and the effect of the more formal, florid lines of the Latin motets.)
This helps to give us, perhaps, some idea of the impact of the sacred pieces in their own day: if court song served, above all, to entertain, polyphonic settings for inclusion in divine worship were intended to solemnify the proceedings, to direct the mind to the contemplation of the Word of God. Rarely, if ever, heard in their true context today, such pieces can still nevertheless impress and even bring spiritual uplift when given performances of this quality and commitment. The sound is excellent—and it needs to be if this potential is to be realized to the full, for these works are essentially constructed in blocks of contrasting sonorities. This effect is heightened by the choice of pieces such as Browne's Stabat mater iuxta Christi crucem for low voices, possibly intended as a dirge on the death of Prince Arthur. The mournful timbre of men's voices might look solid and uninspiring on paper (soaring trebles have become such a feature of received wisdom in Eng- lish polyphony that we forget such pieces were even written), but here it comes to life with the vital, athletic singing and thrilling resonance of the men of The Sixteen. At the other end of the scale, as it were, are the equally stunning, treble-dominated invocations of the Virgin in Cornysh's Salve regina. Hygons's setting of the same text is no less dramatic in its own way, and The Sixteen combine the contemplative with the more urgent, with a good bite to the texture, in an entirely satisfying way. Altogether an outstanding recording which I would recommend even to those who normally find early vocal polyphony too esoteric for their taste: sit back and let these glorious sounds fill your ears and lift your spirits.'