Contrapunctus / Owen Rees

In the Midst of Life: Music from the Baldwin Partbooks, Vol. 1

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The Baldwin Partbooks, today in the collection of Christ Church at Oxford University, are a set of compositions copied by composer and musician John Baldwin in the last quarter of the 16th century. The composer represented here is William Byrd, and from there the partbooks reach back to the more monumental, contrapuntally irregular style of John Sheppard and his contemporaries. Many of the pieces they contain are not preserved in any other source, and this release and others in a new series by the nine- (or ten-) voice English choir Contrapunctus seems likely to increase the size of the repertory of English Renaissance music that's commonly heard. Whatever future discs may bring, this fine release makes a good starting point. Its theme is death, and the album takes its title from the giant Sheppard motet Media vita (track 9), whose text has been translated many times ("In the midst of life we are in death"). The Sheppard piece, building a massive 23-minute structure out of a few lines of text, represents the essence of the middle English Renaissance style, which was all about carving out huge musical spaces, and the work here takes on considerable power. The works from the middle 16th century, with their widely spaced voices coming together in sharp harmonic clashes, make a vivid contrast with the pieces by Byrd and the other Elizabethans on the program, and Contrapunctus and director Owen Rees make the most of this contrast. Put it all together with perfectly idiomatic sound from the Church of St. Michael and All Saints in Oxford and informative, enthusiastic notes by Rees, and this is a superior release that gets to the heart of a repertory that often gives listeners problems.

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