Contrapunctus/Owen Rees at The Queen’s College – Music from the Baldwin Partbooks

Robert White
Regina caeli
Thomas Tallis
Gaude gloriosa Dei mater
John Taverner
Mater Christi
Videte miraculum
Tota pulchra es
Robert Fayrfax
Ave Dei Patris filia
John Sheppard
Verbum caro

Owen Rees

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 11 February, 2017
Venue: Chapel of The Queen’s College, Oxford, England

Chapel of The Queen’s College, OxfordPhotograph: Baldwin Partbooks contain a wealth of sacred compositions from the early Tudor period assiduously copied by John Baldwin at St George’s Chapel, Windsor in the 1570s and 1580s, and bear witness to the rich polyphonic choral tradition cultivated by an array of English composers on the eve of the Reformation, and beyond, as far as political circumstances allowed. Owen Rees’s selection here concentrated upon the particularly Catholic form of liturgical devotion addressed to the Virgin Mary to which the Protestant Reformation soon put an end, and with it the development of a distinctive and florid practice of choral writing within English shores.

In comprising ten singers, Contrapunctus struck a happy balance between a robust and well-blended tone that would have carried in a larger and more resonant acoustic than the stucco-decorated 18th-century chapel of The Queen’s College, and the more intimate interaction required in some passages of these works. But in music which sometimes divides into six or more parts, it was not so much the composite layers of the polyphonic texture that Rees sought to single out, but rather the overall structure – sometimes monumental and intricate in scale – such as Thomas Tallis’s ‘Guade gloriosa Dei mater’ and Robert Fayrfax’s ‘Ave Dei Patris filia’. Through such cathedral-like spans, Contrapunctus convincingly sustained the tension and flow of the music, even in the case of John Sheppard’s tripartite ‘Verbum caro’ despite the interruption of plainsong verses, or through the pauses between the sections of ‘Gaude gloriosa’.

Monumental is not to be confused with monolithic, however, as Contrapunctus still secured nuance among the parts. Sopranos soared over the lower voices in parts of Tallis’s ‘Gaude gloriosa’ and the same composer’s Magnificat, putting one in mind of the way that the sopranos (or trebles as would have been the case) scale the heights in John Taverner’s earlier masses; altos were plangent, almost reedy, in a number of places, such as in Robert White’s brief ‘Regina caeli’, set amidst the fluid runs flourishing in the other parts on the “alleluias”; and in the paring back of the texture towards the end of ‘Ave, Dei Patris filia’, the basses provided a sonorous if unobtrusive foundation to the whole edifice.

The balance favoured the upper voices, with three sopranos and altos respectively, compared to pairs of tenors and basses (though there was an additional bass for ‘Gaude gloriosa’). But the delicate performances of ‘Mater Christi’ and ‘Videte miraculum’ demonstrated that they did not unsettle the texture. In the former Rees sustained an almost classical restraint and decorousness by shading off the work’s discrete sections subtly rather than straining towards expansive climaxes; and the lines of the latter were caressed with some expressive leaning into certain notes for gentle emphasis.

This was a sensitive realisation of a thoughtful programme of pieces, which also marked the launch of a compact disc with similar repertoire.

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