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Briefly Noted: Chirk Castle Part-Books

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Music from the Chirk Castle Part-Books, Brabant Ensemble, S. Rice

(released on April 14, 2009)
Hyperion CDA67695 | 71'04"
My favorite kind of research project brings together elements of music history, art history, architecture, and other disciplines. Liturgical music in the Middle Ages and Renaissance is an area ripe for such studies, making links between notated music, the spaces in which it was sung, the art that decorated those spaces, and the manuscripts in which the music was copied. An intriguing example of this sort of work came to my attention on a family visit to Chirk Castle, thanks to friends we were staying with in mid-Wales. In the 17th century, Thomas Myddelton renovated this castle's chapel, appointing William Deane, a musician from nearby Wrexham parish church, to create a musical establishment for his home. A set of part-books (five for vocal parts, plus one for organ parts where necessary) was compiled for use by the organist and small choir at Chirk Castle.

By the end of the 17th century, the chapel fell silent and the part books were lost and sold off. The matter came back to scholarly attention only in 1969, when the Myddleton descendants auctioned the remaining books, and Sotheby's sold them to the New York Public Library. Musicologist Peter le Huray tracked down what he could for an article in Early Music History in 1982, and a few years ago Stephen Rice and the Brabant Ensemble made a recording of the unaccompanied music from the Chirk Castle Part-Books. (Last year, in a concert at Chirk Castle, where the chapel was in the last century sadly converted into a music room, the same forces performed some of the music with and for organ, too.) This beautiful disc has tracks of pieces that are recorded only in this source: settings of the Te Deum and Benedictus by William Mundy ("for trebles"); a motet snippet by Tallis (Not every one that saith unto me), inserted into the source's copy of the composer's Dorian Service; and pieces by William Deane, the choirmaster at Chirk.

The Brabant Ensemble's sound is beautifully balanced, with particularly evanescent and pure soprano sound that brings to mind Stile Antico: in fact, Helen and Kate Ashby, who sing with that ensemble, are also featured in the soprano section here, as is Emma Ashby in the altos. The hair-raising cross-relations at the conclusion of Edmund Hooper's motet Behold it is Christ, on the words "remission of their sins," are expertly tuned, and the "Man that is born of a woman" section of the Burial Service (possibly by Robert Parsons), so simple and austere, is remarkably effective when sung in a hush as it is here.

Hear some excerpts from the disc in the video embedded below, plus some images and information about Chirk Castle -- narrated in lovely Welsh. Shamai and iechyd da to all our Welsh friends!

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