29 Dec 2018

Star of Heaven: The Eton Choirbook Legacy

Star of Heaven: The Eton Choirbook Legacy
The Sixteen / Harry Christophers

Coro COR16166

There can be few ensembles with such a close understanding of the of the late 15th century music preserved in The Eton Choirbook and performances by The Sixteen have always been characterised by radiant high sopranos and deliciously bright altos supported by warmly crafted lower voices. This new album brings together Marian works from this famous manuscript with new compositions, specially commissioned by The Genesis Foundation, all united by the special sound of this ensemble.

In the middle of this programme sits Sir James MacMillan’s O Virgo prudentissima based on a surviving fragment by Robert Wylkynson (C.1450-1550). Tudor-esque in proportion, these singers excel in each and every choral texture MacMillan uses, from humming to ‘heterophonic haze’. This is a sumptuous, statuesque work and an equally sumptuous and impressive performance which boasts a ravishing, high solo by Julie Cooper. [...]

To read the full text of this article please visit www.gramophone.co.uk (Jan 2019)

28 Dec 2018

In a Strange Land: Elizabethan Composers in Exile

In a Strange Land
Elizabethan Composers in Exile

Stile Antico HMM902266

Exile, for Edward Said, was not only banishment but a crucial separation from cultural identity; a sense of not feeling at home in one’s home which is what unites the Elizabethan composers on this new album from Stile Antico: ‘In a Strange Land’ presents Catholic composers working abroad with those who stayed in Protestant England, estranged from Rome.

Dowland’s famous pavane, “Flow my tears” opens the album performed in part song rather than the more familiar lute-song beloved of countertenors. Stile Antico, as ever, excel in plangency singing slowly with two voices per part and leaning into the famous descending lacrimae motif. It’s beautiful, but ponderous compared to Dowland’s more madrigalian “In this trembling shadow” a few tracks later. Here the initial use of single voices per part brings immediacy and intimacy which serves the chromaticism with poignancy. Dowland’s penchant for melancholy is infamous, but in the hands of Byrd (1535/40?-1623) it is strikingly political. In ‘Tristitia et anxietas” Stile Antico find a slow-burn of sorrow in Byrd’s churning harmonies and focus on rich, low sonorities allowing for a lightening of interpretation in the more hopeful second half.


To read the full text of this article please visit www.gramophone.co.uk (Jan 2019)

11 Dec 2018

Missa Ave Maria & Missa Salve sancta parens

Missa Ave Maria & Missa Salve sancta parens
Antoine de Févin (c1470-1511/12)

The Brabant Ensemble, Stephen Rice (conductor)
Hyperion CDA68265

Antoine de Févin is not currently well known despite his works having traveled widely in his own day and now being preserved for us in several important sources alongside the work of more famous contemporaries.


The real jewel on this disc is the motet Ascedens Christus in altum. Fuller and richer than one might expect from Févin, a recent discovery has firmed up his attribution. This motet in particular suits The Brabant Ensemble extremely well showcasing their wonderfully bright sopranos in a ravishing trio Elevatis manibus ferebatur in caelum (Lifting his hands he was carried up to heaven). These larger motets with cascading upper voices are what this ensemble does best, and this particular one is especially gorgeous.

To read the full text of this article please visit www.gramophone.co.uk (Dec 2018)

10 Dec 2018

Pater Peccavi

PATER PECCAVI,  Music of Lamentation from Renaissance Portugal
Works by Manuel Cardoso, Estevao Lopes Morago etc.
The Marian Consort / Rory McCleery.
Delphian DCD 34205

This exquisite late renaissance Portuguese polyphonic repertoire is as richly expressive as it is politically poised. Written under the rule of the Spanish Habsburgs from 1580-1640 works by Duarte Lobo (ca.1565-1646) & Manuel Cardoso (1566-1650) are frequently drawn towards texts of mourning and lamentation as they long for an end to foreign rule and yearn for the restoration of a Portuguese monarchy. All this becomes more stylistically vivid when we note both composers outlived Monteverdi, albeit only slightly.


The premiere recording of Lobo’s Missa Veni Domine forms the backbone to the programme. A parody/imitation work drawing on a motet by Palestrina, Rory McCleery explains potential Sebastianist connections with this text in his sleeve notes (the hoped for return of King Sebastian lost in a military campaign of 1578). I love this performance, full of energy and highly responsive to the text. The Sanctus and Benedictus in particular shows the flexibility of this ensemble in responding to different textures. The album highlight for me, however, is Circumdederunt me, a setting of a funeral text by Aires Fernandez. Here the phrases reach upwards and overlap in great arches which the singers perform with a yearning intensity which is just exquisite.

To read the full text of this article please visit www.gramophone.co.uk (Dec 2018)

25 Nov 2018

Josquin - Missa Gaudeamus and Missa L'ami Baudichon

Josquin Missa Gaudeamus. Missa L’ami Baudichon
The Tallis Scholars / Peter Phillips Gimell F CDGIM050

[...] As ever with The Tallis Scholars, interpretative gestures are subtle but flowing: listen for the deliciously well-controlled gush of excitement, a brass band climax in miniature, at Josquin’s triumphal Credo ending, ‘et vitam venture saeculi, Amen’. They find a wonderful sway in the garlands of polyphony and a sense of expectance in the tenors’ long final note.

Conversely, Missa Gaudeamus is almost certainly a middle-period work, and I am charmed by how the opening of the plainchant model presents a joyfully wide rising interval which permeates the polyphonic texture. The Tallis Scholars allow much light to filter through Josquin’s complex textures and they clearly delight in his beautifully spacious three-part setting of ‘Pleni sunt caeli et terra gloria tua’. Their sound may have softened slightly with a new generation of singers but it suits Missa Gaudeamus particularly well. This disc is surely one of their best recent releases.

To read the full text of this article please visit www.gramophone.co.uk (Nov 2018)

13 Oct 2018


Les Cris de Paris, Geoffroy Jourdain
Harmonia Mundi HMM 902298

For this programme, Melancholia, they delve into an adventurous and sumptuous moment of musical history: the sixteenth century’s own fin de siècle which Jourdain dubs a musical avant-garde.


Perhaps the most impressive tracks are the recurring instrumental performances of Byrd’s Lullaby, my sweet little baby ‘imbued with sad premonition’ and his Elegy on the Death of Philip Sydney (Come to me grief forever). The juxtaposition of forward-looking and retrospective portraits of melancholia are touchingly referenced in the programme notes and in both pieces I have been long preoccupied with the superb performances by Fretwork / Michael Chance (1990, VC 7 59586 2; 1987, VC 7 90722-2), I never thought their intimate, sinewy sound could be matched – but here Jourdain’s pairing of serpent, cornet and viols brings a gloriously rich hue to Byrd’s music. To bastardize Victor Hugo, never was there such pleasure in being sad.

To read the full text of this article please visit www.gramophone.co.uk (Oct 2018)

25 Sept 2018

The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Historical Performance in Music

The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Historical Performance in Music
Edited by Colin Lawson, Royal College of Music, London , Robin Stowell, Cardiff University

My entries include: Schola Cantorum Basiliensis, David Munrow, Thurston Dart, Andrew Parrott and Sir Anthony Lewis.

Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Online publication date: August 2018
Print publication year: 2018
Online ISBN: 9781316257678

15 Jun 2018

The King's Singers

The King’s Singers:
Madrigals & Songs from the Renaissance Warner Classics S h 9029 57028-2 
The Complete RCA Recordings RCA Red Seal S k 8898 547018-2

Edward Breen listens to two complementary collections from the UK’s favourite a cappella group

When two choral scholars from the famous choir of King’s College, Cambridge formed an ensemble to perform secular music they could hardly have foreseen a half-century of world-class music-making. From the very start this ensemble consisted of two countertenors, one tenor, two baritones and a bass: a cluster of lower sonorities characterising a smooth, rich sound and underpinning their skillful falsettists. The King’s Singers, as they became in 1968, were among the early music vanguard, that critical mass of ensembles who convinced us of alternatives to the prevailing styles. Certainly The King’s Singers began to reimagine an early music sound from the earliest disc in this Warner Classics collection, their 1974 album ‘English and Italian Madrigals’.


The album I consider to be the absolute essential King’s Singers disc opens this collection: ‘Good Vibrations’ (1992). If you first listened to the madrigals and marvelled at their delicacy, nothing you will find will prepare you for the astonishing difference in this tribute to favourite pop songs. The sound is undeniably the same, as is the cheeky enjoyment of music-making and communication, but a spotlight has moved towards harmony and style. ‘Good Vibrations’ was the album of a lifetime, an outstanding achievement resting not only on the performances but also the arrangements: reharmonisation offering new contexts and complexities to familiar songs.


To read the full text of this article please visit www.gramophone.co.uk (June 2018)

29 Apr 2018

Tomás Luis de Victoria: Tenebrae Responsories
Stile Antico

Harmonia Mundi: HMM 902272

The works on this disc are taken from Victoria’s Officium Hebdomadae Sanctae (published Rome, 1585), a vast offering of polyphonic music spanning Palm Sunday to Holy Saturday. What are presented here are the Responsories for ‘Tenebrae’ services, once celebrated in the fading daylight as part of a liturgy requiring candles to be sequentially extinguished. It has become customary in modern times to record the Second and Third Nocturns from Victoria’s Tenebrae Responsories for Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday in sequence. Divorced from their original context they form an impressively impassioned collection.

This has to be Stile Antico’s best album to date, it’s certainly their most gripping and, as ever with this ensemble, the vocal sound is sumptuous throughout. That they are so engaging in Victoria’s music can be no mere accident: these pieces have a bold recorded history beginning with George Malcolm’s feisty madrigalian interpretation (Westminster Cathedral Choir 1959: Decca 425078) and retaining an imprint of that extrovert approach ever since. [...]

In this recording I particularly admire how the singers find a splendid balance between their rich, blended sound and the need for individual vocal grains to emerge at imploring or declamatory moments. Take, for instance ‘tenebrae factae sunt’ in the Good Friday Responsories: here sung by low-voices: they delineate the darkness of the crucifixion from the crying out of Jesus in what must be one of the most intimate performances on record.

To read the full text of this article please visit www.gramophone.co.uk (May 2018)

28 Apr 2018

Byrd Motets

Byrd Motets
The Choir of King’s College Cambridge, Stephen Cleobury



Throughout this disc, Cleobury opts for an up-front expressivity quite at odds with that classic, old King’s sound, leading to some very exciting moments. Occasionally the trebles lack the finesse and steely control to pull off the sort of performance heard from New College Oxford on their famous William Byrd Cantiones Sacrae 1589 (1983 CRD3420). [...]

Yet elsewhere the sound of the choral scholars—fuller, richer and bolder than ever before—pays many dividends. The Lenten motets Ne irascaris, Domine and Civitas sancti tui are superb, if not slightly too brisk for my task. More tenderness could be found in Byrd’s shapely setting of the word ‘Jerusalem’ but this is a small point compared to the rich vocal tone. By far the best track on this disc though is Alleluia. Ascendit Deus. Dominus in Sina. Here, in a higher tessitura, the trebles find more focus and the phrasing flows joyfully.

To read the full text of this article please visit www.gramophone.co.uk (May 2018)

24 Feb 2018

Icons: Cathy Berberian

‘It has been a great pleasure to revisit Cathy Berberian’s recordings,’ says EDWARD BREEN, author of this issue’s Icons feature dedicated to the mezzo and composer. ‘She was an incredible communicator in music from Monteverdi to Berio. I can almost taste the words that she sings.’


Cathy Berberian As far as is possible within the confines of these pages, Edward Breen explores the vocalist’s fascinating career – defined by eclecticism, experimentation, unorthodoxy and sheer chutzpah

To explore the work of Cathy Berberian (1925-83) is to gaze in wonderment at the versatility and creativity of the human voice. In the 1950s and ’60s she was in the thick of the musical avant-garde, fusing gestural utterances with traditional modes of singing to widen the aesthetic parameters of composition for solo voice. Her dazzling performances (which became known as New Vocality) inspired many composers, but she didn’t limit herself to Darmstadt circles; as Philip Clark wrote in this very magazine more than a decade ago, her career ‘relentlessly posed the question, “which avant-garde?”’ (3/06).


To read the full text of this article please visit www.gramophone.co.uk (March 2018)

23 Feb 2018

Missa Videte miraculum & Ave Maria, ancilla Trinitatis

Missa Videte miraculum & Ave Maria, ancilla Trinitatis
Nicholas Ludford (c1490-1557)
Westminster Abbey Choir, James O'Donnell (conductor)
Hyperion CDA68192

The modern reputation of Nicholas Ludford (c1490-1557) was really sealed by the first recordings of The Cardinall’s Musick in the early1990s (ASV Gaudeamus CDGAU131, 132, 133, 140). These pioneering discs transformed Ludford from being considered a bridge—linking Robert Fayrfax with John Taverner—to one of the most prolific composers of masses in Tudor England and a great pre-reformation musician. [...]

O’Donnell treads a conservative path through the richly textured Missa Videte miraculum. In the Gloria the Lay Vicars create a luscious, serene opening which the treble voices later expand into a full six-part texture. 


The finest singing on this disc however, is undoubtedly Ave Maria, ancilla Trinitas: an exceptional work and a superb performance. The choir are heard at their finest in the more impassioned moments, of which this votive antiphon offers many.

To read the full text of this article please visit www.gramophone.co.uk (March 2018)

14 Feb 2018

A Performance and Reception History of On parole/A paris/Frese nouvel

The Montpellier Codex
The Final Fascicle. Contents, Contexts, Chronologies
Edited by Catherine A. Bradley, Karen Desmond
Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Music, French Studies, Medieval Literature, Music

Chapter 16: A Performance and Reception History of 
On parole/A paris/Frese nouvel
Edward Breen

Fascicle 8’s motet On parole/A paris/Frese nouvele (Mo 8,319, fols. 368v—369v) is an intriguing polytextual work with an equally intriguing performance history. It has caught the imagination of many musicians who have explored the various performance possibilities suggested by the text.

The written personal communication of Thurston Dart offers a unique opportunity to understand how his performance of this particular motet was planned and executed in the late 1960s. It also suggests ways in which his opinion influenced some of the first performances to be recorded. ‘Make the music sound robust now and again’ was Dart’s advice to Michael Morrow and his ensemble Musica Reservata. Little did Dart know just quite how literally these young musicians would take him at his word. For Musica Reservata, On parole/A paris/Frese nouvele required an almost military approach to rhythmic drive resulting in a highly organised market-traders’ cacophony, whereas in Dart’s own conception this street scene unfolded across the newly available stereophonic soundscape of late 60s LP technology. As Emma Dillon explains, the attraction of On parole/A paris/Frese nouvele is that it ‘offers us a rare instance where the city itself is the topic of the motet’. [1] Through this urban prism Dart (re)constructed a vision of medieval Paris which made sense in his modern world and subsequent performances reacted to his historical imagination.

This paper explores the first four recordings of this evocative motet, with particular emphasis on the circumstances surrounding Dart’s much-delayed album, and probes the musicological climate behind each. With reference to the influential work of Yvonne Rokseth, it asks how much these performances say about the changing twentieth century sense of medieval and what they suggest about the changing musicological approaches to the famous Montpellier Codex itself.

[1] Emma Dillon, The Sense of Sound: Musical Meaning in France, 1260-1330 (Oxford, 2012), 87.

1 Feb 2018

David Munrow’s ‘Turkish Nightclub Piece’

Recomposing the Past: Representations of Early Music on Stage and Screen
Edited by James Cook, Alexander Kolassa, Adam Whittaker
© 2018 – Routledge

Chapter 7: David Munrow’s ‘Turkish Nightclub Piece’ 
Edward Breen 

Geography transmuted into history:

‘It was known as “the Turkish nightclub piece” and he used to make it longer and longer in concerts and go redder and redder in the face.’ (Summerly, 2006).

Those were the words of James Bowman, countertenor in David Munrow’s Early Music Consort of London, reflecting on a recorded performance of a medieval dance: Istampitta Tre Fontane played by David Munrow (Munrow and Early Music Consort of London, 1973). Several television recordings of Munrow’s medieval dance performances survive and, combined with broadcast scripts and performer-interviews, they suggest a vibrant view of the Middle Ages based on the performance practices in folk and world music that he encountered on his travels. In particular, Munrow sought technical advice from the Middle-Eastern shawm players he met during overseas tours, and was inspired by the virtuoso clarinet playing of Mustafa Kandirali whose records he collected (Breen, 2014, pp.188-246). Munrow’s book Instruments of the Middle Ages and Renaissance (Munrow, 1976) makes explicit a theory that folk instruments from around the world serve as a template for understanding early instruments. Munrow was not alone in this reasoning, and he drew on research by Curt Sachs, members of The Galpin Society, and the work of early twentieth-century musicologists (Sachs, 1949; Baines, 1957; Wolf, 1918; Lavignac, 1922). Thus, a rich vein of musicological orientalism runs throughout Munrow’s two 1976 TV series, Ancestral Voices and Early Musical Instruments. In both of these, Munrow draws on ancient and folk instruments alike to trace the development of musical instruments though the ages. In particular, he traces the history of the shawm, the ancestor of our modern oboe, to its Saracen military origins. [...]

© 2018 – Routledge

27 Jan 2018

Jacob Obrecht: Missa Grecorum & motets

Jacob Obrecht: Missa Grecorum & motets
The Brabant Ensemble / Stephen Rice
Hyperion CDA68216

Jacob Obrecht (1457/8-1505) is still not as well represented on disc as one might hope despite having (briefly) succeeded Josquin Des Prez in Ferrara, and having written over thirty cyclic masses. This excellent premiere recording of Missa Grecorum is a very welcome edition to his discography and also includes the first recording of the motet O beate Basili.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of this disc, though, is the nimble and charming setting of Mater Patris / Sancta Dei genitrix. The tuning takes a moment to settle, but soon the motet unfolds ravishing chains of tumbling phrases on Aures tuae pietatis Ad nos vertens a peccatis… (Turning your merciful ears to us, release us from sin). Obrecht’s music, and these performances are ravishingly beautiful and form a well-matched pair.

To read the full text of this article please visit www.gramophone.co.uk (February 2018)

26 Jan 2018

A due alti: Chamber duets by Bononcini, Steffani, Marcello et al.

A due alti: Chamber duets by Bononcini, Steffani, Marcello et al.
Filippo Mineccia & Raffaele Pe, La Venexiana / Claudio Cavina
Glossa GCD 920942

Countertenors Filipo Mineccia and Raffaele Pe form a vocally impressive and well-matched duo for this selection of duetti da camera from the first half of the eighteenth century. Unlike operatic duets where characters are usually in dialogue with each other or duelling from opposing perspectives, these chamber works frequently present musically equal partners, often performing the same text. As such they broadly follow the development of the solo chamber cantata with familiar recitative and aria structures, and highly nuanced texts.

[...] Listen especially for the glorious harp playing of Chiara Granata’s prelude to Cristofaro Caresana’s (c.1640-1709) Lamento degli occhi… which also contains some of the best singing on this album. The countertenors are particularly engaging cast as one eyeball each.

To read the full text of this article please visit www.gramophone.co.uk (February 2018)