Vol 1 Music from the Peterhouse Partbooks: Three Marian Antiphons[CD]
~ ASTON / JONES / MASON
Alex Ross wrote at length about this CD in The New Yorker in January 2011. Here are excerpts from his piece: 'Fortunately, fresh ideas about Renaissance performance are proliferating... Among recent CDs in the polyphonic field, a recording by the Boston ensemble Blue Heron stands out, and not only because of the group's pleasingly quirky name. The director of Blue Heron is Scott Metcalfe... His aim is to bring expressive intensity, even a hint of Baroque flair, to the earlier repertory... The new Blue Heron disk ... gathers five-part religious pieces by English composers of the early Tudor period: Robert Jones, John Mason, and, most significant, Hugh Aston... Only ten pieces by Aston survive, but they reveal a composer with a knack for generating brilliant climaxes from simple material... Of course, my sense of Aston's voice owes much to Blue Heron's imaginative realization of his scores. Through an array of interpretive choices-fine gradations of dynamics; pungent diction; telling contrasts of ethereal and earthly timbres; tempos that are more lusty than languid; a way of propelling a phrase toward a goal-the music takes on narrative momentum, it's moods dovetailing with the theme of the text. Listen to the brazen, almost raucous tone of the sopranos as they arrive, in "Ave Maria dive matris Anne," at the self-reflexive phrase "psallentes et omnes hoc Ave Maria"-"and all singing this Hail Mary." Or to the joyous thrust of the basses in the Amen coda of Aston's "Gaude virgo mater Christi," as they repeat a phrase in which one interval keeps widening, from a third to a fourth and, finally, to a fifth... The seemingly serene music of Renaissance church ritual did not stem from yoga-like spells of meditation. Instead, as Andrew Kirkwood observes, it communicated a desperate plea for mercy-in particular, "the desire to shorten the time in purgatory that, short of sainthood and immediate passage to paradise, would follow earthly life." ... It is good to feel a hint of turbulence, of mortal fear, in performances such as Blue Heron's...; with that quiver of passion, the music inspires even greater awe.' The disc was released as the first in a series of recordings of music from the Peterhouse partbooks, the largest and most important source of English music surviving from the period just before the Reformation. The music is astonishingly beautiful and it's story is fascinating. We are able to sing these pieces in modern times only thanks to the work of a remarkable scholar and composer, Nick Sandon. The recording presents superlative music by three composers-Hugh Aston, Robert Jones, and John Mason-who were active in England in the 1510s through the 1540s. Today they are virtually unknown to performers and scholars alike owing to a historical tragedy, the destruction of most manuscripts of English sacred music during the religious upheavals of the 16th century. It is the misfortune of these three composers that the primary extant source of their music-in the case of Robert Jones, the sole extant source-is incomplete today through the loss of one partbook and a portion of another, out of a set of five. The set is known as the Peterhouse partbooks, for it's present location in the library of Peterhouse College, Cambridge. Copied in 1540 for Canterbury Cathedral, which had just been refounded as a secular cathedral following Henry VIII's dissolution of the monastic cathedrals, the Peterhouse partbooks contain seventy-two works for five voices in the major liturgical forms of the day-principally Mass, Magnificat, and votive antiphon. Despite the enormous importance of this source to music history and the extremely high quality of much of the music contained in it, it has received short shrift from performers and musicologists alike, owing to the fact that the tenor partbook, along with a portion of the treble, has been missing for centuries. This has prevented singers from performing the fifty pieces in the partbooks that survive complete in no other source-until recently, that is. Blue Heron's performances of the incomplete Peterhouse music rely on reconstructions by the English musicologist Nick Sandon, who over the course of his career has devoted much of his creative energies to the project. Sandon completed his dissertation on the partbooks in 1983, including reconstructions of almost all of the incomplete music. Over the nearly three decades since, he has been refining and revising his completions and issuing them in Antico Edition. Blue Heron has made the Peterhouse repertoire a specialty ever since it's first concerts in 1999, in which the ensemble performed Aston's Ave Maria dive matris Anne, the opening track of the new disc. It is safe to say that Blue Heron has sung more of Nick Sandon's tenor lines than any other ensemble in North America, and never in ten years has any one in the group felt that a note he composed felt wrong. His quite amazing accomplishment is to have recreated a musical line that is utterly idiomatic, not merely to the general language of English music in the early sixteenth century, but to the local dialect and accent of one composer and, even more specifically, to that one composer's voice as heard in one piece in all it's particularity. We-and Aston and Jones and Mason and all the other Peterhouse composers-owe him grateful thanks for restoring this marvelous music to us in singable form. The CD booklet includes extensive notes by Nick Sandon on the Peterhouse partbooks, their place in history, and the process of restoring the missing music, as well detailed information concerning historical performance practice by Scott Metcalfe. Released 13 March 2010 Engineering and mastering: Joel Gordon Producer: Eric Milnes Editing: Eric Milnes, Joel Gordon & David Corcoran Graphic design: Pete Goldlust Cover photo: Radius Images Recorded at Church of the Redeemer, Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts September 2009.
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