The Sun Most Radiant – Music from the Eton Choirbook Vol. 4

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This CD of music from the Eton Choirbook, the vast collection of English sacred music from the early Renaissance, is the fourth in an acclaimed series by Stephen Darlington and The Choir of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford which has proved to be a thrilling encounter with the remarkable world of the liturgy of Eton College Chapel in the late 15th century. This sumptuous volume includes two first recordings: John Browne’s second setting of the Salve Regina, and William Horwood’s Gaude flore virginali. This music was 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.

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The Eton Choirbook, compiled around 1515, contains around 60 works by composers associated not only with Eton but also with the Chapel Royal and other institutions. It has never been recorded complete (a five-CD set by The Sixteen is the most comprehensive), and this latest disc from the ongoing Avie selection contains two first recordings – Browne’s Salve Regina II and Horwood’s Gaude flore virginali. These really are brilliantly composed works, and Stephen Darlington and the Christchurch Choir understand them better than most. In the case of Browne’s Salve Regina I, for example, the long, rhapsodic lines are given the time, direction and acoustic space to unfold organically and with clarity. They transpose the piece up a tone, as do The Sixteen on Coro, which gives it brightness, but the latter scramble through it in 11 minutes while Christchurch take 15. A similar deft spaciousness comes in this version of Stratford’s Magnificat when compared with the Tonus Peregrinus attempt on Naxos. Of the two premiere recordings, the Horwood item works best with the choir representing the trio sections with an utterly cool brilliance which blossoms into transcendent radiance at the entry of the full choir.

Anthony Pryer, BBC Music Magazine, December 2016

With this instalment of music from the Eton Choirbook, the Choir of Christ Church Cathedral sets out to rival The Sixteen’s five-volume anthology from the 1990s. Already it seems to me that they surpass it technically – which is remarkable considering the inevitable changes of personnel that time imposes on a choir with boy trebles – and interpretatively. As I noted of Vol 3 (11/14), they have also worked their way through those Eton pieces that had not been recorded before, and the quality of their performances has changed my appreciation of several ‘minor’ composers for the better.

Volume 4 is the most satisfying of the set since the first. Even by the standards of previous instalments, Stephen Darlington’s tempi are surprisingly relaxed, especially in duple-time sections. Judged by the clock one might even call them slow, but the textural detail is so clear that the abiding impression is of deliberation rather than ponderousness. The trebles have stamina and poise, and they understand how to shape their lines, as may be heard in John Browne’s Salve regina I and William Horwood’s Gaude flore virginali (the latter being new to the catalogue).

The adult cast is perhaps the strongest of the set so far: their reading of the Magnificat by one ‘William, Monk of Stratford’ is more nuanced than The Sixteen’s, so that a work that had seemed to me relevatively undistinguished comes across far more favourably. Browne’s Salve regina I (with trebles) has had several fine recordings but his Salve regina II for adult singers is the only one of his completely transmitted pieces that had never been committed to disc. Less immediately striking than its counterpart, the subtle interplay of its lines is increasingly absorbing the more one listens to it. Had more of Browne’s music survived, I have little doubt that he would be considered the equal of Dunstable and Taverner, and possibly even Tallis. As it is, no other Eton composer equals his technical resource or imagination. But there are still a couple of his motets left to record: dare we hope for a Vol 5?

Fabrice Fitch, Gramophone ‘Editor’s Choice’, November 2016

The fourth volume in the Avie’s superb exploration of the Eton Choirbook brings us two superb Salve Reginas by John Browne, the Magnificat by William, Monk of Stratford and William Horwood’s Gaude flore virginali. Again and again I was stuck by Stephen Darlington’s affinity with this music: his instinctive choice of effective tempi, his effortless transitions from section to section and his masterly overview of these large-scale works. Impressive too, as in the previous volumes, is the ability of his singers to transition effortlessly from tutti to solo singers and back again. A cathedral choir is an entity which like a vintage wine changes flavour over time, and one factor in this is the unpredictable boy treble section. Some listeners to Browne’s first Salve Regina may feel that the solo and tutti boy treble sound is not quite as sweet as on the choir’s previous recordings in the series, but to my mind this is just an aspect of the natural evolution of any choir’s sound. The more familiar of the two Browne Salve reginas is for the standard five-part ‘Eton’ choir and the Oxford choristers rise well to its challenges. The other setting, remarkably receiving its premiere recording here, is set for TTTBarB and also proves to be a stunning masterpiece, muscular and dynamic. The Monk of Stratford’s Magnificat is also for adult male voices, and it too allows the remarkable lower voices of the choir to shine. William Horwood’s SATTB setting of Gaude flore virginali, also receiving its premiere recording, proves to be a work of profound inspiration and invention. To my ear the treble contribution here sounds more mellow too. It is remarkable to think that music of such superlative quality is still being rediscovered, and full congratulations are due to Avie and to Stephen Darlington and his choir for their ongoing project.

D James Ross, Early Music Review, 14 October 2016

This … is essential in terms of both content and performance quality. It represents the fourth installment in the Christ Church Cathedral Choir’s ongoing survey of English choral music from the Eton Choirbooks, and yet again the program features two world-premiere recordings: a previously-unheard Salve Regina setting by John Browne, and the motet Gaude flore virginali by the early and obscure composer William Horwood. As usual, the recorded sound is burnished and radiant, the choral blend is colorful but smooth, and the singers’ intonation is solid. All libraries with classical collections should be acquiring all of the discs in this series as they appear.

Rick Anderson, CD HotList, 3 October 2016

Here are four huge pieces from Eton College’s volume of pre-Reformation riches, two of them elaborate Salve Regina settings by John Browne. The first contains glories enough, but the male-voice second possesses remarkable sensual richness and sense of destination. The performances of these, and of William Horwood’s Gaude Flore Virginali and a Magnificat by William, Monk of Stratford, are excellent.

Stephen Pettitt, Sunday Times, 2 October 2016

Stephen Darlington’s Christ Church Cathedral Choir is … worthy of being recorded, as they triumphantly prove here with another volume of offerings from the Eton Choirbook, a vast collection of English sacred music from the early renaissance. This almost 70-minute offering focuses especially on John Browne, who was writing music between 1480 and 1505. Alongside two other obscure names to most lay people – William Horwood and William Stratford – Darlington and his team offer some fascinating music … the impact is simply the beauty of what is on display, and the sheer quality of the music making, that allows us to reach back more than 500 years to reinvigorate ourselves in an entirely different musical world, with a religious sense, very different to our own. This is for the adventurous, but almost anyone with a taste for choral music will find much to enjoy here.

David Mellor, Classic FM New Album Reviews, 4 August 2016

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John Browne (fl. c.1480–1505)
1. Salve Regina I a 5 (15.01)
2. Salve Regina II a 5 * (18.47)

William Horwood (c.1430 – 1484)
3. Gaude flore virginali a 5 * (14.56)

William Stratford (fl. late 15th – early 16th centuries)
4. Magnificat a 4 (19.45)

* first recordings

Recording: 14–16 March 2016, Chapel of Merton College, Oxford
Producer: Jeremy Summerly
Balance engineer and editing: Simon Fox-Gál

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