on 25 December 2013
This is NOT just another recording of a few pieces from the Eton Choirbook. It is so different from what came before that we may as well treat it as the FIRST recording ever made of music from the Eton choirbook.
The Eton Choirbook is a richly illuminated manuscript collection of late-15th century English sacred music, compiled for use at Eton College. It somehow miraculously survived the Reformation, and is the most important source we have for the repertoire of its era. 24 different composers, 64 surviving compositions, most complete, most on Marian texts just as one would expect from late-15th century Catholics.
The music in it has received plenty of attention over the last 50 years, starting with the Purcell Consort of Voices in the 1960s. I am not familiar with their recordings, which to my knowledge have never been re-released on CD, but I am very familiar with the recordings of this music done more recently (90s and noughties) by the Sixteen and the Tallis Scholars. These recordings have, in my opinion, three very serious defects.
First, both Peter Phillips (TS) and Harry Christophers (16) have as their ideal texture a kind of blended sound, such as would suit 19th-century part songs. Add to this the fact that they almost always transpose music upwards to fit the range of their admittedly virtuosic female soprani, and at worst, the result can be a top-heavy sound where all voices from the alti downwards congeal into a vague murmur accompanying the overbearing soprani.
Second, the TS and the 16 sing this music from modern scores, with barlines added, and Phillips and Christophers conduct it accordingly. This expedites the rehearsal of this music, but brings with it the very great danger that the singers will phrase their parts according to those barlines. This tendency must be fought against at all cost, and neither the TS nor the 16 do enough in this regard.
Third, Phillips' and Christophers' harmonic conception of this music is extremely conservative. They seek to keep all voices singing in the same "mode" and will edit away any notes which would create false relations or otherwise disturb the placid sound that they presumably consider to be suitably devotional and "medieval". This all makes for lovely, angelic background music, very tame compared to continental polyphony from the same era, and very fine for afternoon naps.
And now along come these insolent Belgians with total disregard for that English DO NOT DISTURB sign. Paul Van Nevel leaves the music untransposed, letting his tenors and basses sing their hearts out. The Huelgas generally make their decisions regarding accidentals based on melodic considerations - as it should be - rather than harmonic ones. This lays bare the "harmonic" adventurousness of these composers, a boldness that our English choirs have long been hiding from us. And Van Nevel lets his singers phrase their parts from verse to verse, rather than from (modern) barline to barline. The word "revelation," overused as it is, cannot begin to describe the result.
The best piece for comparison of the two approaches to this music is the last composition on this disc, Robert Wylkynson's 9-voice Salve Regina. It was also recorded by the 16, and what a difference a generation has made. The Huelgas' version of the piece is solidly grounded in the lower registers, the 16 not so much. Van Nevels' tactus is much less palpable than Christophers', and the voices surge in and out of prominence as if impelled by gusts of wind rather than a metronome.
You will really have to hear this disc to believe how stunning this music can sound, even without the suspended dissonances and carefully constructed canons that give interest to the Netherlandish music that was being written at the same time.
And now for the caveat, and it is a serious one. One of the greatest contributions that the Huelgas ensemble and Paul Van Nevel have made to our musical culture comes from their honest treatment of altered notes in the 15th and 16th century repertoire. In this entire period, singers were trained to alter certain notes in their parts to 1) form conventional cadences and 2) in order to avoid some particularly awkward melodic shapes like "outlined" tritones. If the same note appeared simultaneously in another part, it was obviously in a different melodic context and that singer would not necessarily alter his note. This resulted in an imperfect octave. Other "vertical" dissonances, such as tritones, could and did result from similar situations. From the late 15th century to about 1560 on the continent, and even later in England, composers very deliberately exploited the spicy "harmonies" thereby created. These sounds are most common at cadences, but certain Franco-Flemish composers like Josquin and Gombert wrote passages where these clashes are so systematic that the two parts involved might as well be in two different keys. These sounds did not conform to the expectations of the 19th and 20th century musicians who "rediscovered" this repertoire, and so they were bowdlerized right out of the music. Musicologists like Lowinsky, in fact, developed extremely elaborate theories to explain how and why accidentals WERE to be added when they produced the sounds they expected, and WERE NOT to be added if they produced the sounds they did not expect.
Paul Van Nevel and the Huelgas were among the first ensembles to throw off the shackles of those misguided 20th century musicologists and sing their altered notes as 15th and 16th century composers intended them. The adventurous sounds that they revealed are among the greatest beauties of the 15th and 16th century repertoire.
But in the first piece on this disc, John Sutton's Salve Regina, Van Nevel has added harmonic bizarreness to the score, rather than revealing something that was already there. The ending of this piece sounds absolutely extraordinary because the highest voice, the "quatreble," is singing b naturals while other voices are singing b flats (giving imperfect octaves) and e flats (giving augmented fifths). At first I thought that this was another of Nevels' "discoveries" - perhaps the most extreme and striking ever. There is, just to give one example, a totally unprepared (harmonic) augmented fifth on "O pia" about three-quarters of the way through the piece, a sound which would be virtually unique in the 15th century repertoire and would have been radical even for Purcell! But at the instigation of another reviewer, I took a look at the piece in a modern score and in the Eton choirbook itself (viewable online at the IMSLP) in order to see how those extraordinary sounds were notated.
And what do you find there? You find that the quatreble's part for the last bit of the piece is notated at the top of a new page, and that it is precisely there that the B naturals start in Van Nevels' performance. True enough, there is no b flat "signature" for the quatreble at that point in the manuscript like there is in the other parts further down on the page - the b flat doesn't show up in the quatreble until a line later - and so Van Nevel has decided that this is a change of key signature FOR ONE PART OUT OF SEVEN ONLY, with all the bizarre clashes that come as a result. Other editors of this piece think that the Eton scribe simply forgot to put the b flat in the key signature for the quatreble at the start of a new page, and copied it in a line later because that was the location of the page turn in the manuscript he was copying from. If we put the b flat in the quatreble's key signature right at the top of the page in the Eton choirbook, the end of Sutton's piece still has some racy sounds, but none of the totally unprecedented bizarreness that Van Nevel gives us there. And Van Nevel gives his game away by the inconsistency with which the Huelgas sing the ending of the piece. The quatreble sometimes goes back to singing b flats, and the other parts sometimes sing b naturals for reasons which have nothing to do with what is notated in the manuscript, nor with melodic considerations. In other words, Van Nevel has gone out of his way to pick the notes that sound the most bizarre. This is disingenuous at best, and very unfortunate, since the piece would be extraordinary enough without the added weirdness.
I still heartily recommend this disc, but pay no heed to the ending of that Sutton Salve Regina. The other four pieces are full of authentic harmonic and rhythmic wonders unlike anything that you will hear from the Tallis Scholars or the Sixteen. How ironic that these specialists in Netherlandish music are finally revealing the glories of late-15th-century English music. Happy listening, all you fans of pre-reformation English polyphony.