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Christopher GIBBONS (1615 - 1676): "Motets, anthems, fantasias & voluntaries"

Academy of Ancient Music; Choir of the Academy of Ancient Music
Dir: Richard Egarr

rec: Nov 2010, London, All Hallow's Church, Gospel Oak
Harmonia mundi - HMU 807551 ( 2012) (62'27")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: D/F
Cover & track-list

Above the stars my Saviour dwells, verse anthemabg; Ah, my soul, why so dismayed, verse anthemabeg; Fantasiaf; Fantasy-suite in d minorf; Fantasy-suite in Ff; Not unto us, O Lord, full anthemg; O bone Jesu, verse anthemacdeg; The Lord said unto my Lord, verse anthemabdg; Verse for double organ in d minorf; Voluntary in Cf; Voluntary in Cf; Voluntary for double organ in a minorf

Charmian Bedford (soloa), Nina Bennet, Emma Brain Gabbott, Helen-Jane Howells, Philippa Hyde (solob), soprano; Jacqueline Connell (soloc), Lucy Goddard, Kate Mapp, Susanna Spicer (solod), contralto; Julian Forbes, James Geer, Edmund Hastings, Sean Kerr, tenor; Michael Bundy, Richard Latham (soloe), Ashley Riches, Philip Tebb, bass
Pavlo Beznosiuk, Rodolfo Richter, violin; Mark Levy, viola da gamba; Richard Egarrf, Alastair Rossg, organ

This disc is the result of research about the life and work of Christopher Gibbons by Richard Egarr, who first heard about him while reading the diaries of Samuel Pepys. The latter regularly referred to a certain Gibbons, who couldn't be the well-known Orlando, who died well before Pepys was even born. Egarr discovered that it was rather Christopher Gibbons Pepys referred to. As it was obvious from the diary that he was quite an important figure in English music life Egarr decided to search for more information. It resulted in first performances of some of his compositions in 1999. In the following years he regularly performed music by Christopher Gibbons, for instance during the Holland Festival Early Music Utrecht of 2009.

Christopher was the second son - the eldest surviving - of Orlando; he probably started his career as a chorister in the Chapel Royal. His father died when he was just ten years old, and it is assumed that he was taken under the care of his uncle Edward, succentor of Exeter Cathedral. Christopher was educated as an organist and his first post in this capacity was in Winchester Cathedral. In the late 1640s he moved to London where he acted as a keyboard teacher. As a composer Gibbons has become mainly known for contributing to the masque Cupid and Death by Matthew Locke.

At the Restoration he was appointed as a member of the King's Private Musick and as organist of the Chapel Royal and Westminster Abbey. In 1662 the famous German keyboard player and composer Johann Jacob Froberger visited London, where he met Gibbons. In his liner-notes Egarr mentions the free passages in his organ works which could well reflect the influence of Froberger and, through him, of Frescobaldi. In 1664 Gibbons received the degree of DMus at Oxford University at the instigation of the king.

It is interesting to note some differences in the assessment of Gibbons's compositional style. His contemporary Roger North characterized his work as "bold, solid, and strong, but desultory and not without a little of the barbaresque". Richard Egarr writes: "His music contains the angular, combative lines and consequent dissonance that typify the amazing consort music of Lawes. However Gibbons's harmonic sense is tempered and more stable (...)". They share an admiration for Gibbons who, according to North, was "a great master in the ecclesiasticall stile, and also in consort musick".

The latter comes to the fore in the pieces for consort recorded here. They were written at a time that this genre was on the verge of disappearance. They are played here with two violins; considering that the violin was just emerging as a standard instrument in performances one wonders whether a performance with treble viols may have been a more plausible option. There is no strong dynamic shading in these performances, and that seems quite right. The pieces on this disc suggest there is every reason to record his complete output in this genre. An interesting project for Fantasm, perhaps?

The brilliance of Gibbons as a keyboard player is reflected in the four pieces included in the programme. Richard Egarr plays them well, and thanks to the meantone temperament the daring harmonies come off perfectly. That is not so much the case in the vocal items, and that is largely due to the vibrato of the vocal ensemble and the soloists. The latter is not that much of a problem, also because their vibrato isn't that wide and not very obtrusive, but it damages the tutti passages in the various verse anthems and especially the eight-part Not unto us, O Lord, for double choir. Especially here the vibrato and more generally the way of singing results in a lack of transparency and the text being hard to understand. That is also a problem in the tutti episodes in the verse anthems.

Even so this disc is recommendable because the music of Christopher Gibbons is largely ignored. The selection from his anthems and Latin motets is quite intriguing and confirms North's assessment of Gibbons's skills in the "ecclesiasticall stile". Let us hope that some day more of his vocal music will be available in thoroughly satisfying performances.

Johan van Veen ( 2013)

Relevant links:

Academy of Ancient Music

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