Armonico Consort / Christopher Monks

Naked Byrd

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Adorning the cover of this release by Britain's Armonico Consort is Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring, who stands for just about anything anyone wants her to. The collection of mostly sacred a cappella music comes from various periods and is presented without its texts, largely shorn of historical context. The cover text merely informs the buyer that the composers involved "wore their hearts on their sleeves," which is a pretty vague concept, and it refers to live Naked Byrd concerts featuring plainchant and violin improvisations, neither of which is present here. The title of Tallis' Loquebantur variis linguis is misspelled on the cover and in the tracklist. In short, the disc threatens to be a perfect example of goopy choral sentimentalism. And it is nothing of the sort. The heart-on-the-sleeve characterization is redeemed by an intense yet carefully controlled small-choir sound unlike anything else on the British scene. Sample the Tallis (track 3) for an introduction. Director Christopher Monks masterfully builds up a coherent program, using diverse but linked choral styles in ways that nobody else has hit on. The program begins with polyphonic textures, inflected through the techniques of Byrd, Tallis, and Morten Lauridsen, whose influence by now extends far beyond his native U.S. It broadens out to deeper, more static textures, again in the contrasting hands of John Sheppard and Henryk Górecki (whose name is also misspelled). Works by John Tavener and the little-known British Renaissance revivalist Robert Pearsall introduce a secular dimension to the expressive concept, and the album ends with an altogether unexpected thing: a work by one of the young choristers associated with the group (although he is not among the singers for this particular release). Combined with the preceding Ave Maria of Bruckner, it concludes the program with homophonic textures that bring a sense of resolution. The whole thing fits together in a very satisfying way, the young singers are superb, and the engineering, for which no details at all are provided in the English-only booklet, fits the music's sound beautifully. Highly recommended for listeners who like choral music for its sound rather than its sense.

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