As its subtitle attests, the focus of this album is English art music from the 14th century. This is interesting repertory, surviving in bits and pieces, and far less known today than the contemporaneous French Ars Nova that reached its apogee in the work of Guillaume de Machaut. Even as old English music goes, the 13th century gets more of the limelight, led by the famous Sumer Is Icumen in and twinsongs like "Edi beo thu, hevene Quene" and "Foweles in the frith". And then there's the 15th century ushering in the first of the English "name" composers, Power and Dunstable, further pushing the 14th century into the background. Masters of the Rolls is a helpful remedy to this obscurity.
The Rolls in question are the rotoli (singular rotolus) from which literate musicians of that time read while performing. Very few of these delicate, often roughly-handled scroll manuscripts have survived. More plentiful nowadays are the bound manuscripts that served as display pieces or collector's items more than as practical musical texts. Indeed, few medieval English music manuscripts of ANY kind survived the Anglican reformation, and many that did spent hundreds of years as recycled scraps in bindings, frontispieces and what not before their rediscovery by modern scholars. A preponderance of this surviving music was sung in church/monastery settings, and used sacred texts in English or Latin. All of the texts heard here are in Latin, though some are political rather than sacred).
Surveying a few of the 22 tracks should give an idea of what's on tap here. First up is "Ab ora summa nuncius", an example of what Christopher Page calls same-text pieces (where everyone sings the same words together, though not necessarily on the same pitch). It sounds like an Ars Antiqua conductus from France, except for the enhanced emphasis on full triads. Track 2 is a typical multi-text Latin motet ("Inter usitata/Inter tot et tales/Tenor"), one of the many "not-same-text-pieces" on the album that offer quite a contast from the more homophonic same-text works. These motets more closely resemble their French counterparts than the same-text pieces. Track 3, "Vexilla regni prodeunt" is a strophic monophonic secular song whose third phrase closely resembles the famous In Nomine tune that became popular in English variation sets written around 1600. Track 4, an interesting specimen at least under Gothic Voices' rhythmic interpretation, is quite close to the sound world of the Kyrie from Machaut's mass, with its largely homorhythmic texture offset with the occasional dramatic melisma. Track 5 adds a single female voice to the four male voices.
Skipping ahead to "Letetur celi curia", track 11, we get another example of a English conductus (though Page doesn't use this term). Page points out that the piece "runs for nearly three-and-a-half minutes without a single dissonance of a second, seventh or ninth, major or minor; such a procedure is almost unimaginable in the context of Ars Nova practice in France". Indeed the focus on triadic harmonies is probably the most characteristic Anglicism in this music. It wasn't until the 15th century that the major triad became established on the Continent as a reference sonority. Keep in mind that French sacred polyphony was geared for enormous Gothic cathedrals like Notre Dame and Rheims. It's not surprising that the French composers considered thirds to be less consonant than the fifths and octaves that worked so well in those highly reverberant spaces.
As usual Gothic Voices sets the bar for scholarly but musically impeccable a cappella interpretations of medieval vocal music. If you're fond of this repertory and aren't troubled at the prospect of listening for an hour without hearing any instrumentals (in contrast with, say a Micrologus album), then you certainly won't be disappointed by this 1999 recording.