Browne choirbook CDGIM036

Déjà Review: this review was first published in March 2005 and the recording is still available.

John Browne (fl. c. 1490)
Music from the Eton Choirbook
Salve regina I
Stabat iuxta
Stabat mater
O Regina mundi clara
O Maria salvatoris
The Tallis Scholars/Peter Phillips
rec. Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, Salle, UK
Gimell CDGIM036 [71]

This CD is one of those few productions that leave me speechless. And this is for two fundamental reasons. The first is the sheer beauty and characteristic poise of the performance by the Tallis Scholars. The second is that in John Browne we have an undoubted master who is little known. Yet there is a perfection in these five works that is rarely found in music of any generation.

With the considerable help of the programme notes I will try to outline in a little more detail the background to this ‘subtle and seductive’ music.

All the works on this disc are to be found in the Folios of the Eton Choirbook, dating from the last decade of the fifteenth century. There are some fifteen works by Browne in these manuscripts. However, some are lost completely and only appear in the index, others are incomplete and some are just too long to include on this current retrospective.

Little is known about John Browne. Suffice to say that he was probably born in Coventry and at the age of thirteen or fourteen was elected as a scholar at Eton. This was in 1467. He is regarded by scholars as being pre-eminent amongst the composers represented in the Eton Choirbook; his contribution being both exceptional musically and by far the largest in quantity. Great things have been claimed for him, for example it has been said that he is ‘amongst the greatest composers between John Dunstable and John Taverner.’

One of the strange things about the five works presented on this CD is that none of them are composed for the same vocal forces. Furthermore there is a tendency to use voices from the lower range making for some very interesting sounds. For some reason, possibly lost to history, his choice of texts seems to be profound and serious, for example, there are two versions of that most harrowing of Christian mediations – Our Lady stood at the foot of the Cross watching her Son expire.

Musically, Browne is noted for a greater flexibility of his approach to counterpoint than many of his contemporaries. For the technically minded this included a preference for imitation and a less than conventional approach to the introduction of voices into this particular musical device.

For those who know John Browne’s music the Salve regina and the Stabat mater have been the two works which have kept his flame alight over the centuries. Even the most superficial hearing of these works reveals why they have been so highly regarded. There is much to discover in these deeply moving works.

The Stabat iuxta is unusual in its scoring. The composer calls for four tenors and two basses. This narrowing of musical compass to two octaves makes for some interesting sonic effects. Peter Philips states that there are ‘opportunities for dense, almost cluster chords.’ These defied the contemporary textbook approach to writing of polyphony which encouraged a greater balance of texture and voicings. The O Regina mundi has a similar sound to the Stabat iuxta although the composer has added an alto to give contrast to the tenors and basses.

The ‘magnus opus’ is undoubtedly the antiphon O Maria salvatoris – O Mary Mother of the Saviour. This work was highly regarded in Browne’s lifetime. In fact it had the honour of being at the very front of the Eton Choirbook. Peter Philips notes that at the time of the work’s composition, there would have been no precedent for 8-part polyphony, so it would have been regarded as being somewhat experimental and perhaps even avant-garde. This is truly wonderful music that fair takes the breath away. It well deserves to re-establish its place in the canon of ecclesiastical music.

This CD is beautifully presented. There is something that feels good about just holding it IN your hand, even before putting it ‘onto the turntable.’ The cover shows an example of Browne’s musical penmanship in the Stabat mater; this is an artistic masterpiece in its own right.

The sleeve-notes and the translations are all present and correct, and of course this is so necessary when listening to music that is largely known only to specialists. The sound quality is, as with every CD I have heard from Gimell, near perfect.

Taken as a whole this is a gorgeous exploration into a realm of music that is little known. Yet somehow this is essential listening for all who love liturgical music. This represents all that is best in English music – not only from the fifteenth century but from any age.

Near perfect music from the late fifteenth century sung in glorious style. A most moving and satisfying disc.

John France

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