Harry Christophers / The Sixteen

The Crown of Thorns: Music from the Eton Choirbook, Vol. 2

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The Crown of Thorns is the second volume in a series of five discs by choral group the Sixteen under Harry Christophers devoted to the contents of The Eton Choirbook, an early sixteenth century manuscript that remains one of the few primary sources for late fourteenth century English Latin service music, having escaped the purgation that was English King Henry VIII's dissolution of the monarchies. Its survival may have had something to do with the fact that this manuscript was created by musicians who were favorites of Henry VII for the cathedral in the college he founded, Eton -- perhaps Henry VIII was loath to burn a book so valued by his father. Whether or not this is true, it contains some of the finest music to survive from this place and era, and all but three of the works of John Browne -- possibly the leading English composer of this generation -- are contained within this one volume.

Browne figures importantly in The Crown of Thorns, a collection that draws together three settings of the Stabat mater and two English carols from the Fayrfax manuscript, another source from Henry VII's time containing vernacular sacred and secular songs once housed at King's College, Cambridge. There is a measure of dispute as to whether the "Browne" of the Cambridge carol Jesu, mercy, how may this be? is also John Browne, represented by more works than any other composer in The Eton Choirbook. However, the Sixteen throws caution to the wind and attributes both works to John Browne, though the clear winner -- and strongest work overall on The Crown of Thorns -- is his glorious setting of the Stabat mater, which winds its way through a range of emotions and dynamics in its 13-and-a-half minutes that would put many half-hour-long symphonies to shame. That's not to say the other two Stabat maters -- by Richard Davy and William Cornysh, the elder respectively -- are not also strong, just that the Browne setting is so exceptionally superlative. The program is rounded out by Ah, gentle Jesu, one of only two pieces known by single-named composer Sheryngham.

One might be surprised to find only five works on an album of fifteenth-century music and that there's not a single mass setting in sight, but these are not minor works; even the carols average out to 10 minutes in length. The Sixteen and Christophers deserve commendation for having the stamina to deliver such long works as these, let alone in the superb renderings they are given here. This 1995 release dropped out of sight when Collins Classics closed its doors, but the disc was reissued in 2003 on The Sixteen's own Coro label.

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