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CD reviews

[I] "Rise, O my soul - English Anthems"
Studio de musique ancienne de Montréala; Consort des Voix Humainesb
Dir: Christopher Jackson

rec: May 22 - 24, 2006, Mirabel (Quebec), Église Saint-Augustin
ATMA - ACD2 2506 (© 2007) (60'39")

[II] Thomas TOMKINS: "These Distracted Times"
Alamirec; Choir of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge (David Skinner)d; Fretworke; Jamal Sutton, organf

rec: June 11 - 14, 2007, Cambridge, Sidney Sussex College (Chapel)
Obsidian - CD702 (© 2007) (66'54")

[I] John BULL (1563-1628): Almighty God, which by the leading of a star (The Star Anthem), verse anthem a 5ab; Orlando GIBBONS (1583-1625): Fantasia a 4 No 1b; Glorious and powerful God, verse anthem a 5ab; O all true faithful hearts, verse anthem a 5ab; See, see, the word is incarnate, verse anthem a 5ab; William SIMMES (fl 1607-1616): Rise, O my soul, verse anthem a 5ab; Thomas TOMKINS (1572-1656): Above the starrs my saviour dwells, verse anthem a 6ab; Fantasia a 3 No 12b; Fantasia on Ut re mi fa sol la a 4b; Sing unto God, verse anthem a 5ab; John WARD (1571-1638): Prayer is an endless chain, verse anthem a 5ab
[II] Thomas TOMKINS: A Fancyf; Almighty God, the fountain of all wisdomd; Hear my prayer, O Lordde; I heard a voice from heavendf; My help cometh from the Lorddef; O Lord, how manifoldc; Pavan Ie; Pavan VIIe; Pavan VIIIe; Pavan 'for these distracted times'f; Remember me, O Lordc; The Fifth Service (Te Deum & Jubilate; Magnificat & Nunc dimittis)de; The heavens declarecf; When David hearddf

[Alamire] Steven Harrold, Christopher Watson, tenor; Timothy Scott Whiteley, baritone; Robert Macdonald, bass;
[Consort des Voix Humaines] Margaret Little, treble viol; Mélisande Corriveau, treble viol, bass viol; Elin Söderström, tenor viol; Jivko Georgiev, Susie Napper, bass viol; Réjean Poirier, organ;
[Fretwork] Richard Boothby, Richard Campbell, Wendy Gillespie, Bill Hunt, Asako Morikawa, Susanna Pell, Richard Tunnicliffe, viola da gamba

One of the most important genres of English sacred music is the anthem. Its existence is the direct result of the Reformation which was forced by Henry VIII and, after an intermezzo under Mary Tudor, was further developed by Elizabeth I. The anthem on an English text was the alternative to the motet on a Latin text of the Roman-Catholic liturgy. The texts were mostly taken from the Bible, in particular the Book of Psalms, or from the Book of Common Prayer.

The period in which the composers who are represented on the ATMA disc were active saw the verse anthem being developed. In this anthem the various verses were divided over one or more solo voices and the full choir. Both were supported by an organ or a consort of viols. With a larger role for the solo voices the text was more clearly audible and there was more opportunity for expression. According to Thomas Tomkins, one of the main composers of verse anthems, it was the task of the musician "to draw the hearer as it were in chains of gold by the ears to the consideration of holy things".

The Studio de musique ancienne de Montréal and the instrumentalists are presenting a fine choice of verse anthems, interspersed by some consort pieces. Among the first generation of composers of verse anthems was William Byrd, who is not represented here. Instead we hear an anthem by another composer of his generation, John Bull, who is mainly known for his keyboard music. Being a Roman Catholic he left the country for the continent, and it is assumed most of his sacred vocal works have been destroyed after he left England.

Also not well-known for his sacred music is John Ward: the largest part of his output consists of madrigals and consort music. In his anthem Prayer is an endless chain he doesn't belie his skills as a madrigalist. Virtually nothing is known about William Simmes. Pieces attributed to a certain composer with this name are three anthems and seven fantasias for consort.

Thomas Tomkins, Orlando Gibbons and Thomas Weelkes belong to the same generation and all contributed greatly to the genre of the verse anthem. Only the first two are represented here. Gibbons' anthem See, see the word is incarnate belongs to his most frequently performed; Glorious and powerful God is also rather well-known. But the disc opens with a lesser-known item, O all true faithful hearts. Gibbons is one of the few composers of his time who never wrote any sacred music on Latin texts. In the programme notes he is characterised as "Anglican to the core". He was admired as an organist, according to contemporaries "the best finger of his age".

Tomkins' oeuvre is large, and consists mainly of liturgical music and anthems, and also a number of keyboard works. In his sacred music he makes use of harmony at the service of text expression, and it is no surprise that his anthems - either full or verse - are among the most popular of English sacred music from the first half of the 17th century.

The choir, led by Christopher Jackson, gives excellent performances. The sound is powerful and bright, but also clear and transparent. The members of the choir give good accounts of the solo passages, but the alto is a bit weak. In the first item, O all true faithfull hearts by Gibbons, he is a bit overshadowed by the tenor. He also has a slight tremolo in his voice. The Consort des Voix Humaines gives splendid support and also plays the consort pieces with good expression and a beautiful tone.

The disc on the label Obsidian is a good addition to the ATMA disc in that it broadens the horizon to the whole of Tomkins' sacred output. Apart from verse anthems we find some full anthems here as well as the Fifth Service. This contains settings of the Te Deum and the Jubilate, both for Matins, and the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis for Evensong. In addition it presents three Pavans for viol consort and some keyboard works. The vocal items are either sung by the choir or by the vocal ensemble. David Skinner, who wrote the programme notes, feels that some anthems are just not very suitable to be sung by a choir, because of the range and the virtuosity of some vocal parts.

The variety in genre and in scoring is one of the attractive aspects of this disc. The interpretation of the three consort pieces is excellent, and their pretty sad character comes out well. The vocal ensemble is giving the most satisfying performances of Tomkins' vocal music. It contains of four fine singers who have no problems with the elaborate parts in the three pieces they are singing. It is mainly the choir which is disappointing. Not that it is bad - far from it. The tutti are sung well and so are the solo episodes by members of the choir. But the overall sound is rather dull, and that makes these performances far less vibrant than they should be. Pieces like I heard a voice from heaven and When David heard are not very expressive in these interpretations. The singing is too straighforward, and I had liked more dynamic shades which had made the performances more dramatic and incisive. Too much goes by almost unnoticed.

It has to be said, though, that the blandness of the choral pieces is partly due to the recording. I don't know what the acoustics of the Chapel of Sidney Sussex College in Cambridge is, but the recording is very dry and lacks any reverberation. But that is exactly what this music needs - it was written for a cathedral, not for the living room. The unsympathetic acoustical circumstances substantially damage the quality of this production.

It is a shame such an interesting production which sheds light on lesser-known aspects of Tomkins' oeuvre and also contains not frequently-performed anthems is rather disappointing in regard to interpretation. In this respect the ATMA disc is much to be preferred.

Johan van Veen (© 2009)

Relevant links:

Choir of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge
Les Voix Humaines
Studio de musique ancienne de Montréal

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