Star of Heaven: The Eton Choirbook

Star of Heaven: The Eton Choirbook Legacy
The Sixteen, Harry Christophers
CORO. COR16166. 66’37

Star of Heaven: The Eton Choirbook Legacy

You need to read the title of this recording carefully – The Eton Choirbook Legacy, the key word being ‘Legacy’. Alongside pieces by Walter Lambe, William Cornysh and Robert Wylkynson from the famous c1500 Eton College Choirbook are compositions by five contemporary composers, commissioned by the Sixteen’s Genesis Foundation to contrast with and compliment the Eton pieces. Four are direct responses to Eton Choirbook pieces, the fifth is Stephen Hough’s four-movement Hallowed, composed for the British Museum’s recent ‘Living with Gods’ exhibition.

Joseph Phibbs contrasts the eloquently contrapuntal lines of Lambe’s Nesciens mater with a meditative and generally homophonic response to the same text, written in relatively close harmony and matching the original in length. Phillip Cooke expands on William Cornysh’s Ave Maria, mater Dei with a piece nearly twice the length. Cornysh’s version is in four parts and is sung by the male voices. Cooke adds two distant soprano voices in dialogue with the choir.

Sir James MacMillan’s substantial O Virgo prudentissima is not based on one of the Choirbook pieces on the recording, but is built on a tiny fragment by Robert Wylkynson found in the Eton book. Lasting nearly 13 minutes, it covers a wide range of homophonic and polyphonic compositional styles, with frequent use of hummed chords supporting single-line voices or chorus interjections. Lambe’s Stella caeli possibly reflects the plague that struck Windsor during the year he joined the choir of St George’s Chapel. It inspired Marco Galvani’s response, which uses many compositional aspects of the original.

Robert Wylkynson’s monumental Salve Regina completes the Eton Choirbook settings. Written in nine parts to mirror the host of angels (seraphim, cherubim et al) that traditionally accompany the Virgin Mary in medieval assumption paintings, the complex interweaving of the voices creates a sense of timelessness over the 14-minute piece. It was written for Eton itself, where Wylkynson was a member of the chapel choir.

The final piece, unrelated to the Eton Choirbook, is Stephen Hough’s Hallowed. It’s four movements (In blessing, Staying the night in a mountain temple, Song of the Earth, Pater Noster) celebrate “the universality of the human experience and expression of wonder and awe”. With texts from the Old and New Testaments (ranging from Abraham to the Lord’s Prayer), eighth-century China and the Navajo Indians, the short segued sections reflect a range of vocal styles in a recognisable comtemporary idiom.

As usual, the singing of The Sixteen is clean, focused, and superbly blended, with Harry Christophers setting well-judged tempos and control of volume.