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Thomas TOMKINS (1572 - 1656): "When David heard - Sacred Choral Works"

Choir of St John's College, Cambridge
Freddie James, organa
Dir: Andrew Nethsingha

rec: July 16 - 18, 2013, Cambridge, St John's College Chapel
Chandos - CHAN 0804 ( 2014) (62'21")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - no translations
Booklet

A sad pavan for these distracted timesa; Almighty God, the fountain of all wisdom a 5, full anthem; Almighty God, which has knit together a 8, verse anthema; Behold, I bring you glad tidings a 10, verse anthema; Clarifica me Patera; My shepherd is the living Lord a 4, verse anthema; Sixth Service a 5 (Magnificat; Nunc dimittis)a; Third ('Great') Service a 10 (Te Deum; Jubilate)a; Voluntary in a minora; When David heard that Absalom was slain a 5, full anthem

English composers of the mid-16th century had to deal with the political and religious tribulations under Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary Tudor and Elizabeth I. These had considerable effects on their composing of music for the liturgy. About a hundred years later composers did not enjoy much peace and quiet either as they felt the consequences of the political upheaval which resulted in the Commonwealth under Oliver Cromwell. It led to Thomas Tomkins losing his position as organist of Worcester Cathedral. In 1646 the city surrendered to the Parliamentary forces, and as a result cathedral services were almost completely discontinued.

It was a matter of good fortune that this happened when Tomkins was already at an advanced age. In the decades before he had been a most respected composer and organist who was mainly connected to Worcester Cathedral as well as the Chapel Royal. Some of his more ambitious compositions may have been written for the latter institution. One example is the Te Deum & Jubilate for ten voices and organ which is recorded here.

Little is known about his early years, and that includes his musical education. However, it seems certain that William Byrd was one of his teachers: one of the madrigals in the collection of 1622 was dedicated to him. He also studied carefully Thomas Morley's treatise A Plaine and Easie Introduction to Practicall Musicke of 1597. In his vocal music the influence of Thomas Tallis is clearly discernible whereas in his keyboard works he is not only inspired by Byrd but also by John Bull. This disc includes three specimens of his keyboard style. The most famous of them is A Sad Pavan for these distracted times written under the impression of the defeat of the Royalists by the Parliamentarians.

Tomkins was a versatile composer who was respected by his peers. He composed madrigals which were printed in 1622; another madrigal was included by Morley in the collection The Triumphes of Oriana of 1601, dedicated to Queen Elizabeth I. The influence of contemporary Italian composers which is notable in many madrigals of the time is absent in Tomkins's madrigals. That is further evidence of his conservatism which also comes to the fore in many of his sacred works. The Sixth Service, from which the Magnificat and the Nunc dimittis are taken, is an example of these conservative tendencies. This Service, scored for five voices and organ, is considerably more modest than the Third ('Great') Service from which we hear the Te Deum and the Jubilate, strangely enough in reverse order and divided by the organ piece Clarifica me Pater.

That said, there are some pieces with notable text expression. The most famous example is the opening item, When David heard that Absalom was slain which has traces of the sacred madrigal. Another striking example of Tomkins's skills in setting a text is Almighty God, the fountain of all wisdom which includes remarkable dissonants on the name Jesus Christ which is clearly inspired by the previous text episodes. Behold, I bring you glad tidings is another impressive piece with a strikingly florid organ part and an eloquent dotted rhythm on the first phrase of the doxology.

This disc delivers an interesting and useful survey of Tomkins's sacred and keyboard music, which are the most important parts of his oeuvre. Most items have probably been recorded before, although I could not find other recordings of Almighty God, which hast knit together and Behold, I bring you glad tidings. Even so, this is a very attractive disc, not only because of the choice of music, but also because of the performances. The singing is excellent, by the choir but also by its individual members who take care of the solo passages in the verse anthems. Only now and then a slight vibrato in the lower voices is noticeable but that hardly spoils the overall result. In this respect this disc is considerably better than the Purcell/Humfrey disc which I reviewed some time ago. The expressive elements come off very well. The organ pieces are nicely played by Freddie James.

Jeremy Summerly wrote the useful liner-notes, but could have given a little more biographical information about Tomkins.

Johan van Veen ( 2014)

Relevant links:

Choir of St John's College, Cambridge
Freddie James


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