Christ Church Cathedral Choir, Oxford / Stephen Darlington

Masters of the English Renaissance

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The Choir of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, not even fully identified on the cover of this rather rudimentary-looking release, has a 500-year history, and the performances on this album are at the very least part of a long, unbroken tradition. The choir consists of 12 men and 16 boys, with the men further subdivided into professionals and Oxford undergraduates. That lends the group a distinctively layered sound, with planes of rougher and smoother singing. The choristers proclaim a specialization in music of the 16th century, but on this release at least it is the music of the earlier English Renaissance in which they really shine. The reason falls into the realm of the X factor, but there's something about the way the voices of the choir enter with different timbres that dramatically delineates the spacious free polyphony of John Taverner, along with the lesser-known John Sheppard and Robert Parsons. One attractive feature of this collection of Masters of the English Renaissance is that the choir avoids standards like If Ye Love Me that are widely available elsewhere; instead the program includes unfamiliar composers like Parsons, John Mason, and Richard Dering, with English-language music represented by anthems and service music by Thomas Weelkes. These have received more sonically homogeneous readings, but a second positive indefinable is present in the enthusiasm of the young singers, channeled by longtime director Stephen Darlington. A satisfying release of English choral music, although a bit more of an introduction to what you're hearing would have been helpful.

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