Contrapunctus / Owen Rees IN THE MIDST OF LIFE Music from the Baldwin Partbooks I

Early music needs another British vocal ensemble like a meerkat needs car insurance. It’s a field that’s already standing-room only, with long-established groups jostling with younger rivals for space. But Contrapunctus are special. Their first disc, ‘Libera nos: The Cry of the Oppressed’ (Signum, 11/13), was seriously, startlingly good: the intimacy of The Cardinall’s Musick, the rich, glowing tone of The Sixteen and the textual drama of Stile Antico. Their second disc proves that this was no one-off.
It’s a shame that both the group’s name and the rather earnest cover of ‘In the Midst of Life’ (subtitled ‘Music from the Baldwin Partbooks, Vol 1’) may dissuade casual listeners from exploring the contents, because they would find much to delight here. This first selection from the rich Baldwin repertoire (Latin-texted English church music) broods on mortality, death and judgement. Works by Byrd, Tallis, Parsons and Sheppard feature alongside the odd wildcard—Dericke Gerarde’s Sive vigilem is a quietly extraordinary discovery.
Contrapunctus play a long game with this often slow-paced, meditative repertoire. These are understated performances whose moment-to-moment drama is less striking than the long, aching arcs they achieve over five or six minutes—director Owen Rees shows his experience here, making a case for a conductor in a climate in which musical democracy is increasingly king.
Choral blend is mossy-soft and balance immaculate, perfect for the yearning loveliness of Taverner’s Quemadmodum or Sheppard’s Media vita. After two discs of penitence, however, I’d love to hear something a bit more rhythmic, more energetic in their next release. If Contrapunctus can do vivid attack as well as they do misty piety, they may find themselves setting the bar in this repertoire. (Alexandra Coghlan / Gramophone)

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