David James countertenor
Rogers Covey-Crump tenor
John Potter tenor
Gordon Jones baritone
Recorded January 1992, Stadtkirche Gönningen, Germany
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher
This early ECM New Series offering chronicles the music of Walter Frye, a 15th-century English composer whose biographical details are as elusive as his music is captivating. He is survived by a significant handful of vocal works, of which the Hilliard Ensemble gives us a thoughtful cross section. Of these, the Ave regina is the most well known, though the Missa Flos regalis forms the backbone of this altogether revelatory album. The mass itself—which, in true Hilliard fashion is divided among a selection of motets—is a brooding flow of delicate harmonies, seamless “hand-offs,” and intimate exchanges. Its inward-looking tone invites the listener into a prayerful space in which worldly cares are both the source of one’s burdens and the key to absolving them. Frye’s motets are also indicative of a great craftsman at work. Sospitati dedit is a compelling processional prosa (i.e., a celebratory song chanted before the gospel during religious festivals—in this case the Feast of St. Nicholas) that is the most rhythmically adventurous piece on the album. The Salve virgo is another breathtaking setting and soothes with its melodious unfolding. Also of note are the lovely rondeau Tout a par moi and Myn hertis lust, one of the few surviving examples we have of Frye’s English ballades. As for the Ave regina, performed here in three- and four-part versions, one can only praise its brevity and exquisite construction.
The countertenor lines stand out in every piece, not only because of David James’s flawless singing but also because of the ways in which Frye weaves them into the choral fabric at hand. This top-heaviness lends the music a peculiar balance that is meticulously maintained throughout. Frye has been represented elsewhere by the Ferrara Ensemble on their fine disc Northerne Wind. Along with this effort by the Hilliards, one can only hope the future will direct more attention toward a composer who might have easily been trampled in the march of history.