The listener trying to get a basic grip on what medieval plainchant was all about could not ask for a better introduction than this release. The Choir of King's College, Cambridge gets back to its roots, so to speak, performing chants that could have been heard at the college's chapel half a millennium ago. With the chapel's magnificent acoustics as a backdrop, the album takes listeners through the series of decisions choristers would have made concerning what to sing. Those decisions began with the liturgical year, which called for specific chants corresponding to specific days in the cycle. "In this recording," writes John Milsom in his admirably clear and informative liner notes, "the annual cycle has been stopped at two points," both of them days connected with the birth of the Virgin Mary. A mass from one day and a Vespers service from the other are included. Some of the chants contain tropes that place them in their specific time and place. Both are presented more or less complete, with the connective tissue of text-bearing chants retained along with the big ornate pieces; Milsom compares focusing exclusively on the latter to cutting the illuminated initial letters out of a medieval manuscript. For most listeners, he points out, the experience of hearing chant is akin to that of strolling into a museum and looking at an illuminated manuscript; one experiences a richly colored, ornate thing that carries mystery associated with extreme age and remoteness in each case. But we get to the real mystery by trying to penetrate it a bit, and this recording is an ideal aid. Those who experience chant in a more mystical way will likewise benefit from this album; director Stephen Cleobury's tempos are deliberate, and he pulls back from time to time to let the sound of the choristers reverberate around the chapel. Caveats include the marketing department's decision to place a big, fat "Gregorian Chant" at the top of the cover; this is not the "Gregorian" chant that emanated from Rome, connected with a concocted legend about Pope Gregory I's divine inspiration in composing them, and coming with directions to sing it this way or else. Instead, the music on this album represented specifically the failure of the church's standardization efforts; it is so-called Sarum chant, an English variant that the church never succeeded in stamping out. Another issue is the all-male adult forces; as the notes concede, it is likely that boy singers and an organ would have been originally used in this time and place. Yet the choir as it is here constituted makes sense for a disc that is a general introduction rather than a scholarly historical experiment. Complete texts are given, but only in Latin and English -- a shame, considering that this is a chant disc of potentially very wide appeal.
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AllMusic Review by James Manheim