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Briefly Noted: Blue Heron's Peterhouse Set

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Music from the Peterhouse Partbooks, Vol. 4, Blue Heron, S. Metcalfe

(released on August 14, 2015)
BHCD1005 | 65'51"
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Vol. 1

available at Amazon
Vol. 2

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Vol. 3
Back in 2010, we took note of Blue Heron's project to record all of the music from Nick Sandon's reconstruction of the music in the Peterhouse Partbooks. This set of partbooks was probably copied around 1540 for use at Canterbury Cathedral, just after the Benedictine monks who had cared for the cathedral for centuries were driven out by the plunderers of Henry VIII's reformation. Peterhouse, one of the colleges at Cambridge, later acquired the books as part of its attempt to establish its own chapel and choir, but at some point the set lost its tenor partbook and several pages of the treble part, which Prof. Sandon has had to recreate.

Of the fifty-some pieces in this extraordinary source, largely unstudied before Sandon's work to restore it, forty are unica, unknown in any other source. The completions heard on these discs, while speculative, are the closest we are likely ever to come to this music in its original form, unless by a miracle the missing parts turn up somewhere. Blue Heron, based in Boston, still may not measure up to British counterparts like the Tallis Scholars and Stile Antico in terms of perfect intonation and musical sense, but the group seems to improve each time their sound reaches my ears. In Volume 4, the centerpiece is Missa Spes nostra, an extremely beautiful setting of the Latin Ordinary for Trinity Sunday by Robert Jones (fl. 1520-1535), a musician employed by the Royal Chapel under Henry VIII. The Sanctus, often the most gorgeous movement of a Renaissance polyphonic Mass in my experience, is a high-water mark both for this piece and for Blue Heron. The Kyrie, not set to polyphony, is sung in the form of a Sarum plainchant, in an odd style which is the low point of the disc. Thanks to Alex Ross, whose mention of this disc in his Best of the Year post brought the project back to my attention. Many delights await you, and a fifth and final disc is reportedly on the way.

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