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About Contrapunctus

The small British choir Contrapunctus, featuring between nine and 12 members, offers a rare blend of music and scholarship, crafting adventurous programming that includes rarely performed music and situates it convincingly in its cultural context. There is a strong research-oriented component to Contrapunctus' work, given impetus by the academic background of director Owen Rees, but it is balanced by crack vocal work from the group's mixed-gender adult membership, and Contrapunctus can be listened to profitably by general audiences. Contrapunctus was founded in 2010 and quickly gained attention with festival appearances not only in England, but in the Low Countries and in Iberia, both areas of specialization in its repertoire. Those led to a place on the choral-heavy roster of the Signum label and to the release of Contrapunctus' first album, Libera nos: The Cry of the Oppressed, in 2013. The music on the album was not particularly obscure, but the group's way of presenting it was entirely novel. Using texts related to biblical narratives of oppression, Rees explored the resonances of sacred texts in secular situations: specifically Protestant suppression of Catholicism in England and Spanish rule over Portugal at about the same time. At the center of the program was William Byrd, not an unusual choice for a small British vocal ensemble, but rarely has he been surrounded with music, not all of it English, that casts so much light on what he was about. Contrapunctus went on to record two albums of music from the Baldwin Partbooks, incomplete manuscripts (the tenor parts are missing) copied out in Oxford in 1575. A description less likely to propel a group to the best-seller charts might be hard to imagine, yet the albums have brought the sweep of early English Renaissance music to their many listeners. The first album, In the Midst of Life, touched on themes of mortality; released in 2015, it was honored with several newspaper and magazine features, and shortlisted for the Gramophone Early Music Award. The second Baldwin Partbooks release, Virgin and Child, featured Marian pieces and was issued in 2017. Contrapunctus holds the powerful position of vocal group in residence at the University of Oxford. ~ James Manheim