Courts of Heaven

Courts of Heaven – Music from the Eton Choirbook Vol. 3

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Shortlisted for Gramophone Awards 2015 (Early Music Category)

This collection of music from the Eton Choirbook, the vast collection of English sacred music from the early Renaissance, is the third in an acclaimed series by Stephen Darlington and The Choir of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford which has proved a thrilling encounter with the remarkable world of the liturgy of Eton College Chapel in the late 15th century. This is sumptuous music of huge complexity, ranging from the rich sonority of Wylkynson and Hampton to the contrapuntal intricacy of Fawkyner and Turges. This music was also firmly rooted in the daily devotional life of the College, appreciated by all and not just a worshipping élite. The boys and men of Christ Church Cathedral Choir maintain this tradition with a special affinity for this glorious repertoire and deliver performances of unreserved commitment.

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A magnificent addition to the Christ Church Cathedral Choir’s already outstanding Eton Choirbook seriews. … this is singing of the richest splendour.

The acoustic (Merton College Chapel in Oxford) could hardly be more appropriate for the soaring lines, offering heavenly resonance but with no muddying of texture. … This is music which can never be forced and Stephen Darlington paces things to perfection, allowing everything to breathe in the most natural way.

The works are ordered so as to provide an especially appealing start (the outstanding ‘Salve regina’ by Hampton …) and a truly ravishing ‘closer’ in the Etonian Wylkynson’s own ‘Salve regina’, which takes the breath away. So, where does the series go from here? There’ll be a long queue of us waiting to find out.

Andrew Green, Early Music Today, December 2014

John Hampton’s Salve regina’ brings some beautifully rich sounds above which the trebles soar … There are many individual solo contributions that deserve praise … There is a beautiful ebb and flow creating a glorious sound.

There is a forthright, richly blended opening to Edmund Turges’ ‘Gaude flore virginali’ before some very fine, accurate singing from a smaller ensemble of voices weaving a terrific sound. Turges calls on some intricate, exceptionally difficult passages which this choir performs magnificently.

Richard Fawkyner’s ‘Gaude virgo salute’ brings a lighter sound, more transparent, soon giving way to an exquisite blend of solo treble and a small group of adult voices. This treble really is terrific as are the small vocal ensemble. … the choir provides some truly magnificent sounds.

‘O mater venerabilis’ has a richly blended opening before a smaller group … lead on. When the full choir join they bring a beautifully blended sound … Stephen Darlington know just how to get his choir to reveal the many subtleties of this music.

The choir opens Robert Wylkynson’s ‘Salve regina’ before the choristers come in over the top in a lovely opening to this setting … The choir’s rich voiced soloists come together at ‘exaudi preces’, treble Binath Philomin again provides a fine solo with the other soloists weaving some very fine sounds. When the whole choir re-enter, what a fine sound they make, a glorious tapestry of sound.

The Choir of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford under their Director, Stephen Darlington, is surely one of our finest choirs, be it cathedral, collegiate, or specialist.

Bruce Reader, The Classical Reviewer, 21 November 2014

This third helping of Eton Choirbook music will gladden all those interested in this fascinating repertory. The commitment shown to this series by both label and performers alike is anyway remarkable in these straitened times. Moreover, it has contributed to the discography in two important respects: first, by almost single handedly championing the performances of this repertory with boy trebles, the voice-type for which the treble parts were composed; and second, by focusing more than any earlier ensemble on previously unrecorded pieces. This is not merely a matter of ‘filling in the gaps’. It was more difficult to evaluate the major Eton figures (chiefly Browne, Lambe, Davy) when the music of their lesser-known colleagues was accessible only on paper; besides, Darlington’s selection is of such quality that the gap between major and minor figures is rather narrower than I, for one, had supposed. A case in point is Fawkyner, whose entire surviving output (all of two pieces) can now be heard thanks to this series.

The stamina shown by the trebles is at all times remarkable … the balance between intricate detail and overall sonority is very well rendered.

Fabrice Fitch, Gramophone, December 2014

For nearly 30 years, Dr Stephen Darlington has continued the fine tradition of glorious singing which has been circulating in and around the walls of Christ Church for almost 500 years.

The version [of ‘Salve Regina’] for five voices penned by Robert Wylkynson is expressed with soaring, angelic lines.

Embedded within the ‘Gaude virgo salutata’ we hear the pristine reaches of chorister Binath Philomin…This Fawkyner piece…is rendered magical by the Choir of Christ Church. Vocal parts blend effortlessly.

Darlington and his ensemble are extraordinary.

Christie Grimstad, The Classical Music Network, 31 October 2014

The third recording in this excellent series from this important and spectacular manuscript has all the virtues of the previous volumes: stunningly effective singing from soloists (particularly the superb boy treble, Binath Philomin) and from the full choir, all of whom negotiate the tricky rhythms and intervals of the Eton idiom with complete confidence and musicality; insightful and precise direction by Stephen Darlington; a superbly captured acoustic which is rich in detail but also has an evocative bloom to it; and finally, performances at the correct pitch allowing the attention to fall on the fascinating inner harmonies rather than constantly being unduly drawn to the pyrotechnics of a stratospherically high treble line. We are presented with the music of John Hampton, Edmund Turges, John Fawkyner, John Browne and Robert Wylkynson, composers of outstanding imagination about whom, as the programme notes observe, we know practically nothing – I have proposed elsewhere that several may be Scottish, providing a musical link with the roughly contemporary Scottish school of ornate polyphony exemplified by Robert Carver. In a previous review I commented that these performances by a superb all-male choir are undoubtedly the nearest we will come in modern times to the sound the Eton masters had in their heads as they composed, and listening to this extraordinarily consistent account of extended and demanding pieces I am reminded that the only real difference is the larger number of smaller voices required nowadays to populate the treble line, in contrast to the fewer, more mature voice of the Renaissance treble section. These CDs are a ground-breaking achievement, and I look forward to future revelations as the choir explores further as-yet-unperformed works in the Choirbook.

D. James Ross, Early Music Review, October 2014

The superb Christ Church Cathedral Choir here offer five more works from an unparalleled source of English sacred polyphony from the late 15th and early 16th centuries.

…these rich, graceful, intricate antiphons…are sung with unfailing elegance.

Stephen Pettitt, Sunday Times, 26 October 2014

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John Hampton (1484 – 1521)
1. Salve regina (15:37)
Edmund Turges (1469 – 1508?)
2. Gaude flore virginali (13:43)
John Fawkyner (fl. late 15th century)
3. Gaude virgo salutata (18:49)
John Browne (fl. c. 1480–1505)
4. O mater venerabilis (14:18)
Robert Wylkynson (b. c. 1475–80, d. 1515 or later)
5. Salve regina (13:19)

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