Friday 14 November 2014

Alamire and the English Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble directed by David Skinner show what treasures there are in the Spy’s Choirbook, a collection of motets held in the British Library featured on a new release from Obsidian Records

One of the many musical treasures in the British Library is a beautifully illuminated choir book catalogued as Royal MS 8.g.vii. Yet it is the contents as well as the history of this magnificent volume that is of even more interest.

The choir book was devised and assembled in the finest scriptorium of all of Europe in the early sixteenth century, the workshop of Petrus Alamire (c. 1470-1536). Alamire (also known as Peter van den Hoven) was also a noted musician and composer in his own right as well as being a merchant, mining engineer, diplomat and spy. Between 1515 and 1518 a number of letters survive which show that Alamire acted as a spy for Henry VIII against Richard de la Pole, last member of the House of York who openly sought claim to the English throne. Pole in turn, hired Alamire as a counter-spy against Henry VIII.

The title of a new release from Obsidian Records, featuring all thirty four of the motets contained in this choir book, is entertainingly and somewhat accurately called The Spy’s Choirbook. The composers contained in the book represent some in Europe from the early sixteenth century such as Heinrich Isaac, Pierre de la Rue and Josquin Desprez. Most of the works have not been performed in modern times, and this is the first recording dedicated to this most interesting of musical manuscripts from the Alamire scriptorium.


The motets are performed by the choir, Alamire with the English Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble directed by David Skinner . Alamire was founded in 2005 by David Skinner, Rob MacDonald and Steven Harrold. Since then they have performed throughout Europe and the USA. They record exclusively for Obsidian Records, receiving Gramophone Record of the Month for their CD of the complete motets of the Cantiones Sacrae (1575) of Thomas Tallis and William Byrd

The Spy’s Choirbook opens with Jean Mouton’s (c.1459-1522) Celeste beneficium, an uplifting motet which Alamire take at a fine, flowing pace, the choir’s voices blending and overlaying beautifully. Antoine de Févin’s (c.1470-1511/12) Adiutorium nostrum follows perfectly, with a slower flow, these voices providing a mellifluous sound nicely supported by the English Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble who are never intrusive. David Skinner allows a spaciousness that lets the music unfold naturally.

The following Nesciens mater is by an anonymous composer and has a darker tone. It is a fine piece whoever the composer was and is given a richly warm performance by this fine choir. Pierre de la Rue’s (c.1452-1518) Ave regina caelorum really takes off with Skinner allowing the choir a beautiful flexibility of tempo with some marvellous part writing.

Descendi in hortum meum that follows is attributed to Josquin Desprez (c.1450-1521) a composer that always delights the ear and particularly so in this fine performance using the acoustic of the Fitzalan Chapel, Arundel Castle to fine effect in the polyphonic lines. There is more from Févin with his Sancta trinitas unus Deus. For those unfamiliar with Févin this is a fine example, full of individual touches finely brought out here.

La Rue is again represented by his Vexilla Regis - Passio Domini nostril. Here we return to a slower, broadly paced motet in an especially fine performance with a lovely flow of musical lines. Josquin’s Fama malum has an apt text ‘Rumour, an evil than which no other is more swift…’ given the compiler’s occupation and is another delight as these voices weave a lovely tapestry of sound.

La Rue’s Quis dabit pacem: Doleo super te is a restrained, exquisite lament showing la Rue at his finest, with Skinner allowing a lovely freedom of flow. Two more anonymous motets follow, a particularly attractive O Domine Iesu Christe - Et sanctissima mater tua with some fine rich sonorities and a richly restrained Maxsimilla Christo amabilis with some lovely moments.

Franciscus Strus’ (fl.1500) Sancta Maria succurre miseris - O werder mondt has some lovely parts for the upper voices in this light textured motet with the sonorities of the English Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble providing subtle support.

There is a very fine Sancta et immaculata virginitas,  again by an anonymous composer before Josquin’s Missus est Gabriel angelus with this choir providing a very fine blend of voices as they weave Josquin’s lovely tapestry of sounds.

Three more anonymous works follow, the motet Dulcissima virgo Maria where we can only wonder who was the creator of this fine work, quite beautifully sung by Alamire, a richly blended Tolca purche es - Salve regina with fine contribution from the Ensemble who blend so well with the choir and O sancta Maria virgo virginum where the Ensemble open with lovely textures in this instrumental piece, beautifully played by these fine musicians.

Pierrequin de Therache (c.1470-1528) is not a name that I’m familiar with but his Verbum bonum et soave shows him to be an accomplished composer with a distinctive style sharing the vocal lines around the choir to fine effect before building to a lovely Amen.

Two more anonymous works conclude the first CD of this set, another instrumental piece Recordamini quomodo praedixit filium with individual instruments of the English Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble providing some lovely sounds, so evocative of the age, sounds that no modern instruments can ever replicate and O beatissime Domine Iesu Christe - Fac me de tua gratia a slowly paced motet with some lovely vocal lines. This is a work of some substance – by whom we can only wonder.

The second disc opens with the anonymous Ave Sanctissima Maria, a gorgeously harmonised motet with the rich basses of Alamire bringing fine sonorities across their range. This is another terrific find. Mouton’s Ecce Maria genuit nobis has a terrific opening with some lovely overlaying of voices.

The anonymous Congratulamini mihi omnes again brings The English Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble with these musicians providing superb instrumental sounds in this beautifully contrapuntal piece.  Févin’s Egregie Christi martir Christophore - Ecce enim has a lovely clarity of texture pointed up by the Ensemble with this choir bringing a fine subtle rubato to this lovely work.

Two more anonymous pieces follow with the Ensemble laying out the musical lines for Alma redemptoris mater so well, allowing the fine sounds of each instrument to add something special to the music before the choir bring a setting of Dulces exuviae, as fine a setting as any on this disc, with a beautifully chosen tempi so fitting before following with four more settings of the text Dulces exuviae.

Alexander Agricola’s (c.1446-1506) Dulces exuviae is a slightly sombre setting, showing this choir’s wonderful control to perfection, with Skinner knowing just how to let the music subtly surge. With Josquin’s Dulces exuviae they allow his fine setting to gently unfold revealing all its beauty, with an exquisite coda.

Mouton lays down a lovely harmony in the opening of his Dulces exuviae to which he adds as the motet proceeds. Johannes Ghiselin’s (fl. 1500) is another name that flits through history (fl. 1500) yet his Dulces exuviae dum fata deusque is a richly rewarding setting.

The following setting of Absalon, fili mi has been attributed to Josquin or La Rue. Whoever the composer, this is a fine and, indeed, distinctive setting of this mournful text. The English Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble then bring us the anonymous Iesus autem transiens, a rousing piece that raises the spirits after the subdued Absalon, fili mi.

Heinrich Isaac continues the uplifting feel with his Anima mea - Invenerunt - Filiae Ierusalem with a lovely weaving of voices in this terrific motet before we finally have another motet attributed to Josquin, Tribulatio et angustia invenerunt me, a very fine piece where the choir are wonderfully supported by the ensemble in this final motet of the choir book, a work that couldn’t make a finer conclusion if David Skinner had chosen the piece himself.

There are many well-known names here, many less so and quite a few anonymous pieces to tempt the palette. These excellent performances show what treasures there are in the Spy’s Choirbook. These artists are given a very fine recording from the lovely acoustic of the Fitzalan Chapel, Arundel Castle, Sussex, England and there are excellent notes from David Skinner as well as full Latin texts with English translations. If you are drawn to this repertoire do not miss this set.

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