Rare renaissance gems from Blue Heron

The Blue Heron Choir is on a mission: they want to bring to life music that has gone unheard since the reign of Henry VIII. The Peterhouse Partbooks (stored in Peterhouse College, Cambridge) were compiled in 1540 by Thomas Bull. Written for liturgical use at the Canterbury Cathedral. Since these were performing copies, the music is carefully transcribed with no illuminations or distracting graphic elements.

Bull’s collection contains over seventy choral works, fifty of which are unique to the partbooks. The partbooks were only in use for seven years. Under Edward II, professional church choirs were dissolved, and the books stored away and forgotten — until now.

The center piece of the album is the Missa Spes nostra by Robert Jones. Known more for his lute songs and madrigals, this mass is a masterwork of English renaissance polyphony. Jones shifts back and forth between modes, giving the work a slightly modern sound (at least to my ears).

Also included is a work by Nicholas Ludford, and one by Robert Hunt. Hunt is something of a cipher. Only two of his works are known — and both only from the Peterhouse Partbooks. His setting of the Stabat mater is expressive and effective, letting the words dictate the course of the music. Perhaps because of that, some of his harmonies are quite surprising, but never out of context. This is a gem that deserves to enter the sacred choral repertoire.

This fourth volume in the Peterhouse Partbooks series continues the same high standards of the previous three. Blue Heron has a smooth ensemble blend, with especially strong sopranos. That’s important, as many of these works have wide leaps in the upper registers, which these singers take with apparent ease and hit with laser-like accuracy.

The recording’s cleanly recorded, with just the right amount of ambiance to carry the cadences into the following phrases. Yet I never had trouble discerning the various lines as the weave contrapuntally in and out of each other.

Robert Jones: Missa Spes nostra; Nicholas Ludford: Ave cujus conceptio; Robert Hunt: Stabat mater
Music from the Peterhouse Partbooks, Vol. 4
Blue Heron Renaissance Choir; Scott Metcalfe, director
BHCD 1005

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