- Tota pulchra es
The recording devoted to a single manuscript has always seemed to be primarily of interest to specialists. But the example here -- a set of partbooks with a missing tenor part (editorially restored) -- works convincingly in this exploration by the virtuoso small vocal group Contrapunctus and its director, Owen Rees. The attraction is that the partbooks cover the better part of a century of music, from cantus firmus pieces by John Sheppard and Robert White to the High Renaissance structures of Thomas Tallis. Actually, the order is reverse chronological: the program opens with one of the towering accomplishments of English Renaissance polyphony, Tallis' "Gaude gloriosa Dei mater," a set of nine prayers to the Virgin Mary, and goes backward from there. All the music is unified by Marian texts, and there's no question of "evolution": what you hear is what a group of choristers in the middle 16th century might have read from its choirbooks, and marvel at how musical resources had been and were being deployed to express the same basic set of ideas. You might want a larger group than the nine voices of Contrapunctus, especially in the earlier works that filled cathedrals with great walls of sound, but there's no denying the razor-sharp quality of the singing here (sample one of the shorter pieces, like the Tallis "Magnificat") or of the engineering work from Signum at the Church of St. Michael and All Saints in Oxford. A recommended recording for those who love the early English Renaissance, revealing an unusual perspective.