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Customer reviews

4.9 out of 5 stars
4.9 out of 5 stars
The Eton Choirbook
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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.
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VINE VOICEon 8 May 2013
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.
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on 24 April 2013
'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.
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on 19 October 2013
This is a major recording both for the quality of the music and the singing - one to be welcomed expecially because van Nevel has dug deeper into the riches of the wonderful Eton Choirbook repertoire of which well over half is amazingly still unrecorded.
My only gripe is that Sutton a 7 when performed as it was written is not as weird-sounding as van Nevel has made it by changing accidentals; this was a shame as it is a stunning piece. His basses nonetheless negotiate the low Eflats at the end with ease.
I would share his views that this music is transcendental and only hope that more choirs of this calibre will continue the good work of Huelgas / Christ Church Choir / Cardinals Music and The Sixteen to bring us the rest of the Choirbook. If it was Victoria we would have 20 recordings already but British musicians and recording companies suffer from an inferiority complex with regard to their own musical heritage. I did hear rumour that Alamire were going to record the complete Walter Lambe - now that would be something to wait up for!
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on 30 May 2013
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!!
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on 20 August 2017
Beautiful music
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on 5 March 2014
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!
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on 16 December 2016
This quite superb from the Huelgas Ensemble, a really outstanding rendition of The Eton Choirbook. If you want a version that is exquisite, then this is it. Highly recommended.
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on 28 October 2013
A lovely programme of English Pre-Reformation music-some not recorded before.Beautiful performance of some of the treasures of the Eton Choirbook.
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on 23 December 2015
I bought this for my dad, he is totally thrilled with it and he says it fulfills everything he had read about it .
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