Do we need another recording of Eton Choirbook music? There are after all plenty knocking about, from the Tallis Scholars, a five disc set from The Sixteen, from Tonus Peregrinus and a couple from Christ Church Cathedral Choir.
There are some newly recorded pieces here from some of the lesser known composers featuring in the book - the blurb claims that three of the five pieces are world premiere recordings, which is not quite true as William Horewood's Magnificat for 5 voices has been done before. But John Sutton's Salve Regina for 7 voices and Edmund Sturton's Gaude Virgo Mater Christi for 6 voices are apparently genuine firsts. The other two are from more famous figures, namely John Browne's Stabat Mater for 6 voices and Robert Wilkinson's Salve Regina for 9 voices.
Director Paul van Nevel does an outstanding job here with his singers of capturing the intricacy of this unique music with its abundant florid ornamentation and stunning modulations & dissonances, and works the changes of personnel throughout the pieces so well. One can sense more of an effortless flow to these renditions, whereas with some other ensembles you can almost 'hear' the relentless 'beat' of the conductor at work. Van Nevel really brings something new to this music. So yes, perhaps it can be said that we do need this recording.
Where I have a bit of a problem however is in the recorded sound quality. A little too heavy in the mix with the sopranos for my taste (this happens all too often with this kind of music to be honest), but also there are some grating moments (mostly in the first couple of pieces, but not quite so much of a problem with the later works) where the harsh hissing of sibilants are captured, which are a bit off-putting. So as much as I would want to otherwise give this release a full five-star rating, I feel I cannot do so. Four stars seems ungenerous, but I am limited by Amazon's rather coarse-grained rating system.
The booklet includes some basic notes plus Latin sung texts and translations.
There are three good reasons to purchase this CD. Firstly these are rare pieces three of them in fact had never been recorded before. Secondly this repertoire is normally territory reserved for British groups especially the Tallis Scholars and the Sixteen. The Huelgas Ensemble give a refreshing new approach - the singing is technically accomplished and wonderfully balanced the sopranos to my mind not as "dominant" as with English choirs. Thirdly the music is quite simply sublime. Wave after wave of undulating polyphonic lines, duos and trios alternating with passages for all the voices. The mind blowing sonority has a mesmerizing effect. An outstanding CD from a golden era of English choral music.
Those who know this music will have their own ideas of what to expect and how it should be performed. I can only say that the Huelgas Ensemble's performances completely satisfied me. The ensemble produce a very agreeable, clear sound, are accurate as to pitch and timings, and the recording has been made in what seem to me to be ideal acoustical conditions: a resonance that supports and in no way obscures.
How fortunate must those early Tudor worshippers have been, who were able to attend those church services, to which such music was an adornment!
The new Huelgas Ensemble CD of 5 works (incl. 3 not recorded before) from the Eton Choirbook is amazing! Nearly 70 minutes of choral bliss culminating in a magnificent version of Robert Wylkynson's 9 part "Salve Regina". Don't hesitate BUY IT!!
One of the joys of Early Music is that just when you think that you know what you like, there are still more obscure branches of sublime music to explore and delight in. The Eton Choirbook is a collection of 3 works by 24 composers that (mostly) survived destruction in the Reformation. The composers on this recording are not well known but ought to be. The writing is complex and engaging given the length of each piece (the shortest exceeds 11 minutes); the recording is resonant and envelops the listener in a 3D wall of sound. Perhaps the performance will be too continental for some but for me this is a collection that I will return to again and again.