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Review: Singing the Lone Survivors of Nearly Lost Music

Preserved inside the partbooks are pieces by well-known composers, like John Taverner. Some works are what scholars call unica — meaning they don’t exist in any other source. In some cases, they stem from the pen of a musician who left no other trace at all.

For instance, virtually nothing is known about Arthur Chamberlayne, the composer of a spirited setting of the “Hail Mary.” In Blue Heron’s fresh and full-bodied reading, single words — “Jesus” and “salve” (“hail”) — popped out like bright speech bubbles amid a thicket of arabesque counterpoint. As Scott Metcalfe, the ensemble’s director, said in remarks from the stage, that single antiphon constitutes the complete works of Chamberlayne.

But Blue Heron’s devotion to this repertory — the ensemble has recorded five albums of music from the Peterhouse Partbooks — is not justified only by its rarity. This is vivid and radiant music. That it can be heard again at all is because of the dogged commitment of Nick Sandon, a British musicologist who spent four decades reconstructing the scores. (The book containing the tenor voice of these five-part compositions is missing, as are a few pages of the treble’s.)

With two or three singers to a part and women stepping into the shoes of boy choristers, Blue Heron brings a zesty and sensual sound to these works of devotional music. Nicholas Ludford’s “Salve Regina” is a joyous tangle of long, florid lines with the occasional tangy dissonance illuminating a single word. Hugh Aston’s “O baptista vates Christi” is a rhythmically buoyant work full of forward-driving energy and elegant harmonies.

To Mr. Sandon, quoted in a program note, the partbooks have become “a reminder of the catastrophe that English music suffered in the late 1540s and early 1550s, when a

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