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Thomas Tomkins: "Above the starrs: Verse anthems & consort music"

Emma Kirkby, soprano a; Catherine King, contralto b; Charles Daniels, tenor c; Donald Greig, baritone d; Jonathan Arnold e, Richard Wistreich f, bass

rec: June 12 - 15, 2002, Orford, Suffolk (U.K.), St Bartholomew's Church
Harmonia mundi - HMU 907320 (73'31")

Above the starrs my saviour dwells a,b,c,d,f: Alman a 4; Fantasia a 3 [VdGS, No. 3*]; Fantasia a 3 [VdGS, No. 10]; Fantasia a 3 [VdGS, No. 14]; Fantasia a 6 [VdGS, No. 1]; Fantasia a 6 [VdGS, No. 2]; Fantasia a 6 [VdGS, No. 3]; Galliard a 6; In Nomine a 3 [VdGS, No. 1]; In Nomine a 3 [VdGS, No. 2]; O Lord, let me knowe myne end a,b,c,d,f; Pavan a 4; Pavan a 5 [VdGS, No. 6]; Pavan a 6; Rejoice, rejoice and singe a,b,c,d,e,f; Sing unto god 1,b,c,d,f; Thou art my king a,b,c,d,e,f; Ut re mi fa sol la a 4; Woe is me [1] b

Richard Boothby, Richard Campbell, Wendy Gillespie, Julia Hodgson, William Hunt, Susanna Pell, viols

(Sources: [1] Songs, 1622; *VdGS = Thematic Index of Music for Viols, compiled by Gordon Dodd)

Thomas Tomkins was a composer who always remained a kind of 'outsider' in the musical life in England. "From Worcester, Tomkins came to Chapel Royal and court mainly for funerals and coronations, or whenever his choral abilities were in demand," says David Pinto in his liner notes. The court was dominated by composers of foreign ancestry, like Bassano, Ferrabosco and Lanier. It is remarkable that Tomkins in the dedication of his works never mentioned their names, in contrast to English-born composers like Byrd, Dowland, Gibbons and Coprario - who, despite his Italianised name, was English (Cooper). His attempt to become court composer after the death of Alfonso Ferrabosco II failed.

Tomkins is rather moderate in expression: he avoids the extremes and strong individualism of the works of younger contemporaries like William Lawes and Matthew Locke. And only a small part of his musical output became widely known, although it belonged to the standard repertoire in Worcester.

This recording gives an interesting insight into that part of his oeuvre which centres around the consort of viols. Some of the most interesting works are his Fantazias in 6 parts. (The liner notes refer to four of them, but in the track list I can see only three.) One of them (VdGS No. 2) contains some heavy chromaticism. That is also the case in the second part of the Pavan a 5, which begins with a reworking of Dowlands Lachrymae. The density of the Pavan a 6 results in an almost orchestral sound. Its solemnity contrasts nicely with the following Galliard a 6, a playful piece with lively rhythms and imitation between the voices.

A special kind of composition is the consort anthem. There were two kinds of anthems in the liturgy of the Church of England: the full anthem and the verse anthem. The former is written for ‘choir’, whereas the latter contains passages for solo voices. In church, the verse anthem was usually accompanied by the organ, but in the Chapel Royal there was the alternative option of the viol consort. It was also at the court that the verse anthem had its origins: it developed from the secular consort song: a piece for solo voice and viols.

In his verse anthems, Tomkins uses the solo passages to illustrate the text. The most obvious example is the music going down and up on the words "I will treade them downe, that rise up against me" (Thou art my king). Repetition and the use of short notes illustrate ‘time’ ("how longe" and "a spanne longe" respectively) in the first piece on this CD, O Lord, let me knowe myne end. Most verse anthems start with a short prelude for the viols, which set the tone for the whole piece. The difference between the preludes of Sing unto god and Woe is me is striking.

This is a very recommendable recording. Tomkins’ music – with the exception of his keyboard works and some sacred music – is poorly represented on CD. That makes this recording especially welcome. And the music recorded here is of such a quality that it is a delight to listen to. The programme has been well put together, with its alternation of vocal and instrumental works, and of more serious and ‘lighter’ items.

Fortunately the music is well served by the performance. Fretwork is playing superbly. There is no lack of expression, the choice of tempo and the use of dynamics are very convincing. And both the solemn and more playful pieces get the best possible treatment.
All the singers are well-known from the early music scene. Their voices blend very well, and the individual contributions of most singers are fine. It is great to hear Emma Kirkby in excellent form here. This is the kind of music that suits her best. The only reservations I have regard Richard Wistreich: his voice sounds a little stressed in the upper register and his singing lacks a bit subtlety. On the other hand, Charles Daniels is just brilliant and very expressive in his solo contributions.

A feature which makes this recording even more recommendable is the use of Elizabethan pronunciation of the texts of the anthems, which are also printed in the original spelling in the booklet. The liner notes by David Pinto are very informative and the booklet also contains information about the artists and the instruments used in this recording.

N.B. This review first appeared on MusicWeb

Johan van Veen (© 2003)

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