The British Library’s press release for their exhibition “Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination,” which ran from November 11, 2011 to March 13, 2012, tells us “it is the first to display richly illuminated manuscripts from its Royal collection in such large numbers. Including 154 colourful and gilded handwritten books, dating between the 9th and 16th centuries and previously belonging to the kings and queens of England, these exquisite items are real treasures of the nation. The manuscripts, on display in the PACCAR Gallery, offer unique insights into the lives and aspirations of those for whom they were made, enriching our understanding of both the monarchy and the Middle Ages.”
Fair enough. And what CORO (the record label of the English choir The Sixteen) did to accompany the occasion was put together this compilation album of medieval and Renaissance music inspired by the exhibition, featuring previously recorded selections from The Sixteen and The Hilliard Ensemble. CORO released the album in 2012, but they give no date or place references about the recordings in the package. I suppose we should simply be glad we have them because they provide a broad overview of choral music from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, a sort of “Greatest Hits of the Renaissance.”
For those who don’t know the two singing groups involved, The Sixteen are a United Kingdom-based choir and period instrument orchestra, founded by Harry Christophers in 1979, that has been making records and winning awards for over three decades. Since 2001 The Sixteen have been releasing their material under their own record label, CORO. The Hilliard Ensemble is a British male vocal quartet originally devoted to the performance of early music and founded in 1974 by Paul Hilliard. They, too, have released numerous best-selling albums.
For this Royal Manuscripts compilation, the folks at CORO have provided eleven tracks, with a running time of over seventy-four minutes. These include something of a “who’s who” of Renaissance music: John Browne’s Salve Regina, Robert Wylkynson’s Jesus auem transiens, Richard Pygott’s Quid petis, O fili?, William Cornysh’s Ave Maria, Mater Dei, Richard Davy’s Stabat Mater, Guillaume Dufay’s Agnus Dei, Thomas Tallis’s Spem in Alium, and several anonymously written pieces: Hail Mary, full of grace, Lauda: Regina sovrana, This day day dawes, and Christus surrexit.
As we would expect from two such celebrated singing groups as we have here, they execute each of the tunes superbly, the singing clearly articulated, the phrasing precise, and the musical expression uniquely strong. Among the tracks I liked best was the first one, the program opener, John Browne’s Salve Regina, taken from the Eton Choirbook along with three others. The Sixteen sing in heavenly voice, and the acoustic, a little bright, otherwise affords them a sympathetic resonance.
The choir also beautifully sing Wylkynson’s Jesus antem transiens. Here’s the thing with this one, though: The recording favors the left side of the stage for the first half of the music and then slowly, gradually, moves to the middle and finally the right side. It’s a unique experience, the singing moving across the field of sound, I assume intentionally although the accompanying booklet makes no mention of the effect.
Certainly, one of the loveliest of all the songs is the anonymous Medieval carol Hail, Mary, full of grace, again with The Sixteen. It’s a combination of sacred and common verses, the kind of thing finding favor at the time.
The first time we hear the Hilliard Ensemble is in the anonymous Lauda: Regina sovrana, and it presents us with a change sonically from the previous tracks. There are only the four men involved, who sing unaccompanied, the recording sounds more neutral, the venue is more reverberant, and the monophonic Lauda (a song of praise containing a single melodic line) appears more chant-like.
And so it goes, the music sometimes highly religious in tone and content, sometimes symbolic, and always treated in the highest regard by both groups of singers. The album ends with probably the most-famous piece in the set, Tallis’s Spem in alium (“Hope in any other”), a forty-voice motet that The Sixteen handle a little quickly but with great flourish, closing the show in style.