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This is one of the most imaginative and well-planned birthday celebrations I've come across, although we have arrived a little late at the party.
The Huelgas-Ensemble and director Paul van Nevel celebrated its 35th birthday in 2005 with live concerts of some truly complex, multi-voiced polyphony!including the 40 part work, Ecce beatam lucem by Alessandro Striggio, which was the catalyst for a splendid piece of 40-part retaliation from Thomas Tallis: "Spem in alium", the best-known work here. The Huelgas-Ensemble has recorded both before for Sony, but heard live, these performances are less restrained, perhaps in a way that might not please the purists. But as the many polyphonic strands surround you - and here they do surround you, thanks to this hybrid SACD - you'd have to have a cold heart not to be caught up in the performances. The ingenuity of the composers is extraordinary; there's one of the strangest and in its way most original works in the Eton Choirbook, by the late 15th century English composer Robert Wylkynson. His setting of "Jesus autem transiens" is a 13 part canon, with every voice moving within the same restricted vocal compass. And before it there's a 24-voice setting of "Qui habitat" by Josquin in which the singers divide into four choirs, each with its own six-part canon. It has a hypnotic effect...and so does the work which opens the concert, a newly-commissioned piece by Willem Ceuleers (in 35 parts of course, one for each year), which had me fooled until some decidedly modern touches broke through the renaissance texture. It's ingenious, but it does outstay its welcome, unlike every other work on this astonishing disc.
This recording is Disc Of The Week on Radio 3's CD Review --Andrew McGregor
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