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Robert PARSONS (c1535 - 1572): "Sacred Music"

The Cardinall's Musick
Dir: Andrew Carwood

rec: Nov 15 - 17, 2010, Arundel Castle (Fitzalan Chapel)
Hyperion - CDA67874 ( 2011) (70'07")
Liner-notes: E/D/F

Ave Maria a 5; Credo quod redemptor a 6; Holy Lord God Almighty a 5; Deliver me from mine enemies a 6; Domine, quis habitabit a 6; Libera me, Domine a 5; Magnificat a 6-7; O bone Jesu a 5-6; Peccantem me quotidie a 5; Retribue servo tuo a 5; Solemnis urgebat dies (Iam Christus astra ascenderat) a 6

Amy Haworth, Rebecca Hickey, Carys Lane, Cecilia Osmond, soprano; Rebecca Outram, Caroline Trevor, contralto; Patrick Craig, David Gould, alto; William Balkwill, Mark Dobell, George Pooley, Julian Stocker, Simon Wall, tenor; Robert Evans, Robert Rice, baritone; James Arthur, Robert Macdonald, Stuart Young, bass

The cover of this disc shows a portrait of Mary Tudor, 'Bloody Mary', as she is nicknamed. That was the time in which Robert Parsons lived and worked. It was a time of great religious and political upheaval, in which England moved back and forth between Catholicism and Protestantism. This left its mark in the religious music which was written in the mid-16th century.

Very little is known about Parsons. It seems that he was part of the Chapel Royal at least from 1560/61; in 1563 he was appointed as a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal. He has written some songs which may be intended for performance as part of the so-called choirboy plays. He died by drowning in 1571 or 1572.

This disc includes the complete sacred works by Parsons: nine pieces on a Latin text and two in the vernacular. There are also some stylistic differences which makes this disc all the more interesting and compelling. It is impossible to date the various pieces, but it seems that the Magnificat is the earliest; it is supposed to have been written during the reign of Mary Tudor. It is an alternatim setting for six voices, and stylistically close to the music in the Eton Choirbook. Parsons makes use of the canon and in the polyphonic sections he alternates between episodes for the full ensemble and passages for reduced forces. Plainsong and polyphony also alternate in Solemnis urgebat dies, the Office Hymn at Matins on the Feast of Pentecost.

In the confusing period of Mary's reign composers didn't return to the old Votive Antiphons to the Virgin Mary. It was especially the Book of Psalms which raised their interest. Parsons wrote two settings in Latin: Domine, quis habitabit is on the first three verses of Psalm 14 (15), Retribue servo tuo is a setting of verses 17 to 24 from Psalm 118 (119). The latter is the most old-fashioned, with alternating sections for three, four and five voices. In the former Parsons juxtaposes the higher and the lower voices. Both Libera me, Domine and Peccantem me quotidie - responds from the Office of the Dead - are based on a plainchant cantus firmus.

O bone Jesu is a most remarkable piece. The text is different from that of motets with the same title written by composers of the Renaissance. It is a collection of verses from various Psalms, scored for solo voices, whereas the invocations of Christ - using various titles, such as "Adonai", "Emmanuel", "Holy One" and "Teacher" - are for the full five-part ensemble. The piece seems to be connected to St Bernard's Verses which is referred to in Primers and Books of Hours of that time. Ave Maria belongs to Parsons' best-known works and is one of the few settings of this text in the 16th century in England.

Parsons composed just two pieces in the vernacular. Holy Lord God Almighty is a setting of verses 4 and 8 from Revelation, chapter 4. Deliver me from mine enemies is on verses from Psalms 59 and 60. Both show the influence of the Franco-Flemish school and are written for the full ensemble throughout, in imitative polyphony.

The singing is superb. The lines are beautifully shaped and the contrasts between passages for reduced forces and tutti are convincingly realised. The blending of the voices is immaculate; there are no wobbly voices which damage the ensemble. Only now and then the upper voices tend to dominate. The pronunciation is adapted to what was common use at the time, but probably not totally consistently, in comparison for instance to The Binchois Consort's recording of "Music for Henry V and the House of Lancaster".

In short: a richly rewarding disc.

Johan van Veen ( 2013)

Relevant links:

The Cardinall's Musick

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