'These long works induce a degree of emotion that borders on a state of trance, so it is best to listen to no more than one a day.'
With this somewhat chastening warning, Paul Van Nevel introduces us to a selection of five works from the supreme collection of English Renaissance polyphony, the Eton Choirbook. It's something of a departure for the Ensemble, who have concentrated thus far on Continental choral music. Their extraordinarily lush yet rhythmically precise sound can be heard to great effect in works like Richafort: Requiem
and Dufay: O gemma lux
Van Nevel has chosen amongst his five three which have never before been recorded, and so even though the Choirbook is relatively well-served on disc (with recordings by The Sixteen, Tonus Peregrinus, Christ Church and the Tallis Scholars among them) this recording offers something new.
The pieces which make up the codex were written specifically for the daily cycles of Hours and Masses at Eton and for the evening Salve, which would have been performed in the College chapel before an image of the Virgin. The hypnotic effect of melismatic writing (the singing of one syllable to a series of notes) had been used for centuries, but it could be argued that it reached its zenith here. In these performances the scent of pre-Reformation mysticism hangs heavy in the air, and the long works gradually weave a spell which draws the listener into another place.
I take note of Van Nevel's exhortation, but with great resistance.