Anne Boleyn's Songbook

Alamire / David Skinner

(CD - Obsidian Records #CD 715)

Review by James Manheim

The small British choir Alamire, mixed-gender and adult, has shown adaptability and intelligence in matching their skills to a variety of unusual programs. They have a sound with some meat on it, and it rarely flags intonationally. The real news, however, is the repertoire, some of which is performed here for the first time in nearly five centuries. The subject matter is indeed a songbook, probably owned by the second of Henry VIII's wives, although it bears the notation "Mistress" Anne Boleyn and thus apparently dates from the years before her marriage to the king. Unearthed and identified by musicologists in the late 20th century, it may have been the product of her travels in Europe as a young woman. The songbook includes both sacred and secular pieces, by Josquin and other leading continental composers, apparently copied out by someone in Boleyn's retinue; this is just what one would have expected from a young woman on an early version of the Grand Tour. These Netherlandish and French pieces, exceptionally beautifully performed here, are combined with a number of pieces that are left anonymous. These fall into two groups, simpler motets that may have been intended for domestic performance, and more extensive essays in the continental style. Finally there's a piece called O Deathe rock me asleep, a poem that may have been written by Boleyn as she awaited execution for adultery; it is not in the original songbook and thus doesn't really belong with the rest of the music. Probably this is of most interest to those fascinated by the still-murky early English Renaissance, but many pieces have beauties to offer to any lover of Renaissance choral music.

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