Harry Christophers / The Sixteen

The Pillars of Eternity: Music from the Eton Choirbook, Vol. 3

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The Pillars of Eternity is an extremely well-chosen title for this disc, the third volume by the Sixteen in a series of five devoted to the Eton Choirbook, a manuscript volume that remains the primary key to late-fifteenth century Latin church music in England. First issued on the Collins Classics label in 1992, this disc disappeared for a time when the company went under, and in 2004 it makes a more than welcome re-appearance on the Coro label, a concern owned by the Sixteen themselves.

The composers represented here include several of the top ranking figures of the English middle Renaissance, a period in which the influence of English music ranged well outside the borders of British Isles. The surviving output of these composers is pitifully small, with Richard Davy known through only nine works, William Cornysh 24, Walter Lambe eight, and Robert Wylkynson three, excluding fragmentary pieces. The Eton Choirbook is our principal source for the sacred music of Cornysh and for all of the music of the others. This is largely due to the wholesale destruction of British Latin liturgical manuscripts during the "dissolution of the monasteries" carried out under King Henry VIII.

The music is superlatively performed by the Sixteen and well recorded in St. Bartholomew's Church, Oxford. Of particular interest is the music by the Eton Choirbook's chief iconoclast, Robert Wylkynson. His outrageously complex 13-part canon Jesus Autem/Credo in Deum is beautifully done, as is his nine-part Salve Regina, a work from no later than 1515 that seemingly opens the door to the late-Renaissance style. The Coro re-release benefits from a far more attractive front cover than had the Collins, and overall The Pillars of Eternity serves well as an introduction to the whole series of five Eton Choirbook discs, if one prefers to try the waters rather than to dive into the whole set at once. A warning though -- once you have heard The Pillars of Eternity you will probably want the rest.

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