Gary Higginson
MusicWeb International
April 2021

This is a unique and fascinating project and achievement. The project’s rationale, pictured on the front of the booklet, is King James IV (b 1473). Everything here revolves around him, so there is more to this disc than just the music.

The booklet essay comes in various short sections, which I will summarise. The palace and parish church of St Michael stand magnificently next to the lake in the Royal Burgh of Linlithgow, founded in 1242. It was a favourite stopover for the King on the way between his palaces in Edinburgh and Stirling. It is considered one of the jewels of medieval Scottish architecture.

Most of the music heard on this disc, as found in the so-called Carver Choirbook, may well have been performed in the chapel of the palace. This is an attempt at reconstructing sections of two services for the feast of St Katherine of Alexandria on November 25. The lengthy title of the mass alludes to the instrument of her martyrdom, the ‘terrible machinery of wheels’.

The story goes that King James had a vision of St. Katherine in the aisle of the large parish church. Afterwards, he became a devotee of the saint for the rest of his life. Some years later, he prayed for God’s help in the forthcoming conflict against the ‘Auld enemy’. He was warned not to fight and he would have done well to heed it: he met his death at the battle of Flodden field soon after on September 9th 1513. Whether it was the saint he saw or some ‘ghostly apparition’ arranged by his wife Margaret (significantly, the daughter of Henry VII), we shall never know.

From about 1460 comes the main work, the Missa Horrendo subdenda rotarum machinamento, called the ‘Catherine Wheel Mass’. It is anonymous, and no attempt has been made to credit a composer for this or for another mass in the manuscript. The notes tell us that these are ‘quite unlike anything else from the period’. Just in case you were wondering, the manuscript and the mass are not related to anything by Robert Carver, the great Scottish composer, who was not even born until c 1485.

The Binchois Consort begin the disc with two plainchants suitable for the feast day of St. Katherine, opening the recital with the one on which the mass is based. The mass begins with a severely troped Kyrie subtitled ‘Deus Creator omnium’. It will strike you immediately that the Latin pronunciation is not your standard English cathedral sort, but an attempt to recapture a late medieval timbre, so for example ‘tui’ becomes ‘chewi’. After the mass we move to Vespers and an elaborate, florid Magnificat, performed here with an unusual ’fauburdoun’ technique performed ‘in alternatum’. The disc ends with William Cornysh’s superlative four-part Ave Maria, mater Dei.

The booklet notes, wonderfully illustrated, have been written jointly by James Cook, Andrew Kirkman, Kenny McAlpine and Rod Selfridge. Each of them added comments on the quite complex recording process and on the overall project.

Although the palace and therefore the original chapel are now a romantic ruin, the concept behind the recording is the attempt to recreate how the music sounded, down to the precise acoustic. This enterprise has been generously supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and ‘Hearing Historic Scotland’. They have reconstructed how the interior might have looked and an illustration is provided. A QR code has also been supplied for you to scan if you want more detail and to view in virtual reality. I did not find this to be particularly satisfactory. One interesting aspect of the illustration is that the singers have their back to you as you stand in the congregation; this spacing is reproduced in the recording.

The singers recorded the CD after a study of the acoustic properties of the chapel as it was decorated and designed, in a setting with ‘no natural acoustics’, that is to say, in an anechoic chamber. There is a photo of this space in the booklet, as well as several quite technical diagrams. The singers could not obtain therefore the usual feedback due to this closed environment. It is a credit to all concerned that the music emerges as clear, expressive and suitably moving. The singing, as ever with this group of seven male voices, is of the highest quality. The texts are provided and there are also colour illustrations of the manuscript.