Eton College was founded by King Henry VI in 1443 and within 50 years had amassed a unique body of English choral music collected together in what is known today as the Eton Choirbook. Given the collection’s focus on devotion to the Blessed Virgin, its survival of the Henrician Reformation of the 1530s is a minor miracle. The Sixteen made a recommendable recorded foray into this repertoire back in the 1990s, but the choir of Oxford’s Christ Church Cathedral has two special claims to authenticity: first, as a group with an unbroken tradition of daily choral services and second, and most importantly, the inclusion of 14 boy sopranos amongst 33 exclusively male voices.
Boys’ voices are less common in recordings of the Eton pieces, probably because of the discipline required to tackle unaccompanied works on this scale. Of the five pieces here, four involve over 15 minutes of complex polyphony and one, Lambe’s titanic O Maria plena gracia, weighs in at over 20 minutes – an intonational endurance test, as any singer will tell you.
That these singers carry all before them is a tribute to their conductor Stephen Darlington, who directs his substantial forces with flair and a sure sense of the massive architectures involved. The disc kicks off with John Browne’s eight-part O Maria salvatoris mater, the first piece in the book and the most richly scored. The majesty that this choir captures right from the start is a sign of what’s to come as the disc progresses.
Browne deploys his full forces sparingly and it’s a credit to these young singers that they are as comfortable in the more intimate, exposed writing as they are in the more substantively overwhelming moments. Their cry of “En!”, meaning “behold!”, is gloriously hair-raising.
Other highlights include a resonant reading of William Cornysh’s Ave Maria. At four minutes this is easily the shortest piece on the CD but is a miniature masterpiece for men’s voices only. Richard Davy’s Salve Jesu mater vera is given a most subtle and varied interpretation while Robert Wylkynson’s Salve Regina with its swelling cadences and nine voices, named in the Choirbook after each of the nine choirs of angels, wallows in 16 minutes of pure religious ecstasy.
The first-class recording was made in the ideal acoustic of Merton College and has been warmly captured by Avie’s excellent engineering team. This is heavenly fare.