Subtitled The Rise of English Polyphony 1270-1430, this latest recording from The Orlando Consort weaves a rich, stylistically diverse musical tapestry across nearly two centuries of early English polyphony. Originally formed in 1988 to explore repertoire from the period 1050-1550, the UK-based a cappella ensemble – currently comprising countertenor Matthew Venner, tenors Mark Dobell and Angus Smith and baritone Donald Greig – have occasionally branched out into contemporary music.
Beneath the Northern Star finds them on home ground, featuring music by some of the leading lights of medieval English music such as Leonel Power and John Dunstaple, as well as lesser-known composers like Johannes Alanus, Thomas Damett, Robert Chirbury and the most prolific of all, Anonymous. All these motets and movements from mass settings are for three voices; the exception is the four-voice Credo from the Old Hall Manuscript which brings the recording to a close. The stylistic diversity is apparent in the variety of musical techniques, not just from composer to composer but from within different periods of a single composer’s career.
Many of these devices are easy to hear once you know what you’re listening for. The second track, the anonymous Stella maris nuncuparis uses the rondellus technique, whereby the same phrase is repeated three times by different voices before a new phrase is taken up. Ave mundi rosa glistens with smooth parallel harmonies, while Alanus’s Sub aturo plebs is a complex example of the use of isorhythm, or repeated rhythmic patterns. There is also decorated chant, different texts sung by different voices and contrasts between syllabic and melismatic settings of words.
Given these are sung by one voice per part, clarity is guaranteed. But the Orlando Consort also bring a rhythmic buoyancy and timbral beauty and richness to each performance magnifying the aural effect: a fitting analogy for their depth of understanding, and technical mastery of, this formidable repertoire.