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John Browne - Music from the Eton Choirbook

This album features the subtle, almost mystical music of John Browne and won the Gramophone Early Music Award in 2005, the fourth time that Gimell and The Tallis Scholars had received this award.


John Browne: ordinary name, extraordinary music. I needn't detain you too long with biographical details...there are precious few.

Browne 'flourished around 1500', which means we don't even know his dates - but scholars have pinned him down to the household of John de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, who kept one of the grandest private chapels of the time, and where Browne was one of the chaplains.

There were royal connections: the Earl was godfather to Prince Arthur, heir to the English throne, who died in his teens in 1502...and it seems likely that Browne's Stabat iuxta, which depicts Mary in mourning at the foot of the cross, was written for Henry VII's wife Queen Elizabeth - sharing her grief at the loss of her son, the Prince of Wales and future king. It's scored for four tenors and two basses - which confines the vocal range of the work to a mere two octaves. But if you think Browne's emotional palette will be at all restricted, think again: the dense harmonies and imaginative textures are constantly surprising...and made very clear both by the vocal quality of the Tallis Scholars, and by director Peter Phillips' decision to perform these pieces at relatively high pitches.

We wouldn't have any of Browne's music were it not for the Eton Choirbook, which lists 93 works by different composers copied at the turn of the 16th century for use at Eton College. We may know almost nothing about John Browne, but his contemporaries held him in high regard; not only did the Eton Choirbook contain 15 of his works (more than almost any other composer), but pride-of-place at the start of the collection was given to Browne's O Maria salvatoris.

It's a remarkable piece of eight-part polyphonic writing that according to Peter Phillips has no precedent in European music at the time, and its opening phrases soar heavenwards at the end of the CD with breathtaking ease and accuracy. Phillips is spot on in his notes when he's trying to explain what gives Browne's music such impact; it's not just the innovation and imagination, but his emotional range...think Monteverdi rather than Palestrina, he reckons.

There have been more theatrically emotional recordings of Browne's masterpiece, his Stabat mater. But emotional understatement may have been a typically English quality even around 1500, and anyway the sheer beauty and crystalline perfection of these performances from the Tallis Scholars, with those high-flying treble lines so radiantly recorded, make this an unforgettable and richly rewarding experience.

John Browne's body may lie a-mouldering in some unmarked grave, but the reasons the experts consider him the greatest English composer of his time have never seemed more apparent than they do on this remarkable disc.

Reproduced from the BBC Website with permission.

Andrew McGregor

Artistic Quality - 10 / 10
Sound Quality  - 10 / 10

Peter Phillips and The Tallis Scholars have brought many lesser-known English Renaissance composers to our attention by focusing entire recordings on such masters as Nicolas Gombert, Robert White, John Sheppard, and William Cornysh. This welcome (and rare) programming allows listeners to discern important and distinctive aspects of style, and by virtue of the first-rate performances backed by scrupulous scholarship, Phillips and his expert ensemble show these composers to be deserving of the same attention accorded their more illustrious comtemporaries. And here we have another, John Browne, who produced his known works in the late-1400s, and who is significantly represented in the Eton Choir Book--his eight-part O Maria salvatoris appears first. In fact, a polyphonic work in eight parts was "unprecedented", and as you will hear during the course of this well-filled program (71 minutes), Browne was an absolute master of timbre and texture--and also was fond of the false relation and occasional surprising rhythmic shifts usually involving triplets.

In his excellent notes, Phillips suggests that among the compositional elements that Browne so elegantly and purposefully employed, "sonority" is the one that will most "forcefully" impress listeners. And he's right. This is music whose textures and specific treatment of voicings make for unusually vibrant, powerfully resonant harmonies--and this is where anyone who tries to describe in words what the music sounds like will fall short. Such terms as "wall of sound", "multilayered textures", and "multifarious voicings", all of which in some way are pertinent to Browne's writing, just don't go to the heart of what ultimately must be heard to be understood and appreciated.

Highlights include the six-part Stabat iuxta (Beside the cross of Christ, she stood), lusciously scored for TTTTBB and peppered with zinging dissonances, and the magnificent and dramatic Stabat mater. But surely, Phillips and his singers saved the best for last--the O Maria salvatoris is a soaring, emotionally affecting masterpiece that seems to contain everything that made Browne's music so memorable--I especially liked the eyebrow-raising use of triplet figures and the lovely, floating treble lines. As we've come to expect, The Tallis Scholars deliver impeccably sung, appropriately dramatic and stylish performances, ideally recorded in the group's favored venue, the Church of Saint Paul in Norfolk, England. If you don't hear this, you'll be missing one of the year's best choral releases--and one of The Tallis Scholars' finest CDs in its esteemed catalog.

Reproduced with the kind permission of

David Vernier

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