musica Dei donum

CD reviews

English polyphony of the Renaissance

[I] William BYRD (c1540 - 1623): "The Three Masses - Ave verum corpus"
The Choir of Westminster Cathedral
Dir: Martin Baker
rec: July 11 - 12 & Oct 14 - 15, 2013, Westminster Cathedral
Hyperion - CDA68038 (© 2014) (71'30")
Liner-notes: E/F/D; lyrics - translation: E

Ave verum corpus a 4 [4]; Missa 3 vocum; Missa 4 vocum; Missa 5 vocum

[II] "The Tudors at Prayer"
Dir: Philip Cave
rec: Jan 14 - 17, 2013, Cambridge, St George's Chesterton
Linn Records - CKD 447 (© 2014) (79'41")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - translation: E
Cover & track-list

William BYRD (c1540-1623): Tribue, Domine a 6 [1]; William MUNDY (c1528-c1591): Adhaesit pavimento a 5; Adolescentulus sum ego a 6; Vox Patris caelestis a 6; Thomas TALLIS (c1505-1585): Suscipe, quaeso Domine a 7 [1]; John TAVERNER (1490-1545): Quemadmodum desiderat cervus a 6; Robert WHITE (c1535-1574): Domine, quis habitabit (III) a 6; Tota pulchra es a 6

[III] "Vigilate! - English polyphony in dangerous times"
Monteverdi Choir
Dir: John Eliot Gardiner
rec: June 11 - 15, 2013, London, St Giles' Cripplegate
Soli Deo Gloria - SDG 720 (© 2014) (77'33")
Liner-notes: E/F/D; lyrics - translations: E/F/D

William BYRD (c1540-1623): Civitas a sancti tui a 5 [2]; Justorum animae a 5 [4]; Laudibus in sanctis a 5 [3]; Nunc dimittis a 5 [4]; Turn our captivity, O Lord a 6 [5]; Vigilate a 5 [2]; Thomas MORLEY (c1558-1602): Nolo mortem peccatoris a 4; Peter PHILIPS (c1561-1628): Ecce vicit Leo a 8 [6]; Thomas TALLIS (c1505-1585): O nata lux de lumine a 5 [1]; Suscipe, quaeso Domine a 7 [1]; Thomas TOMKINS (1572-1656): Almighty God, the fountain of all wisdom a 5 [7]; Robert WHITE (c1535-1574): Christe qui lux es et dies (I) a 5; Lamentationes Jeremiae a 6

Sources: [1] William Byrd/Thomas Tallis, Cantiones, quae ab argumento sacrae vocantur, 1575; William Byrd, [2] Liber primus sacrarum cantionum, 1589; [3] Liber secundus sacrarum cantionum, 1591; [4] Gradualia ac cantiones sacrae, 1605; [5] Psalmes, Songs and Sonnets ... fit for Voyces or Viols, 1611; [6] Peter Philips, Cantiones sacrae, 1613; [7] Thomas Tomkins, Musica Deo sacra et ecclesiae anglicanae, 1668

We live in a time in which historical performance practice has become the standard in interpretations of at least pre-romantic music. However, there are still aspects of interpretation which are questionable from a historical perspective. Among them are the pronunciation, in particular of Latin, and the venues in which music is performed and the acoustical circumstances which go along with them. These two aspects are relevant in regard to the three discs reviewed here.

The music is taken from the rich repertoire of the English renaissance. Together these three discs cover a period of about a century, and much has changed during that time. Even so, all the music is rooted in the stile antico, and that includes the anthem Almighty God, the fountain of all wisdom by Thomas Tomkins. He died in 1656, but belongs to the renaissance as far as the style of his composing is concerned. Together with Spain England was one of the last countries in Europe where the stile nuovo as it emerged in Italy in the early 17th century, established itself, and that happened only in the second half of that century.

That doesn't mean that there was no influence from the continent. Some composers from the early 17th century were well aware of what happened overseas. But it were mostly composers of the late renaissance, such as Luca Marenzio, who influenced their style of composing. One of them is Peter Philips who is a special case as he moved to the continent for religious reasons. He was the first English composer to write music with a basso continuo part.

Philips was not the only composer who had to deal with the effects of the dominance of Protestantism in England. The most prominent of those who stuck to his Roman Catholic convictions was William Byrd; the same may be true for several of the other composers represented on these discs. Exactly that has consequences for at least some of the repertoire performed on these discs. That goes in particular for the three masses by William Byrd. Although he behaved like a loyal subject of Queen Elizabeth I, and together with his teacher Thomas Tallis even published a collection of motets dedicated to her (Cantiones Sacrae, 1575), he was also an adherent follower of Roman Catholic doctrine and wrote music for the secret services of England's Roman Catholic community. As John Milsom writes in his liner-notes to the Hyperion recording of Byrd's Masses, "William Byrd, if he could hear these performances, would be amazed, for they are not at all what he would have envisaged." We know that these Masses were composed in the 1590s; they were printed on simple pamphlets of sheet music. In 1605 and 1607 two collections with pieces for the Roman Catholic liturgy were published, the Gradualia, from which Ave verum corpus is taken, one of Byrd's most famous compositions.

The statement by Milsom concerns the performance of the Masses by a full-blooded Catholic church choir in a cathedral which is open to everyone. That is very different from how his Masses were performed in his own time. It seems likely that only a small number of people participated in these performances, probably in relatively small venues. It would be interesting to hear in what way that would effect the performance, not only in sound, but probably also in regard to tempo and clarity of the text. One of the few attempts to demonstrate this is the disc by the Ensemble européen William Byrd devoted to Latin church music by Thomas Tallis.

In comparison to the recording of Byrd's Masses which took place in Westminster Cathedral, the Monteverdi Choir and Magnificat recorded their respective programmes in smaller churches. There the acoustical circumstances are quite different, more intimate, and therefore could give some idea of how some of the music they perform may have sounded in the late 16th century. However, the number of singers involved seems to be at odds with the then current circumstances. Magnificat comprises 18 singers, the Monteverdi Choir even 27. There is no indication that not all the singers participate in every piece. The results are mixed: Magnificat's recording has just a little more reverberation and generally a better acoustical atmosphere than the Monteverdi Choir's; the latter is rather dry and that results in a pretty bland sound.

There is more what tells these recordings apart. Magnificat confines itself to music in Latin, most of which written for the Roman Catholic liturgy. That doesn't imply that every piece was performed in secret services as some may have been written during the reign of Mary Tudor (1553-1558) who aimed at restoring Roman Catholic dominance. In the programme some of the most brilliant composers are represented, and it is interesting to hear the stylistic differences within a corpus of music written within a span of about 40 years. Although it is not presented as such this disc can be considered a sequel to the disc "Where late the sweet birds sang", again with music by Byrd and White but also some pieces by Robert Parsons. The singing is again fine, but often the text is hard to understand. That was probably not the first concern of some composers, but at least Byrd payed much attention to the text. However, these performances are much better than those of the Monteverdi Choir.

An ensemble of 27 seems too large for this repertoire, especially as this is a group of adult singers. The sound lacks transparency and here again the text is not always easy to understand. However, the main problem is the approach of this repertoire. The programme begins with Ecce vicit Leo by Peter Philips. Considering that he was influenced by Italian madrigal composers of his time and his music was written for performance on the continent a 'madrigalian' interpretation seems justified. But in the rest of the programme this approach seems inappropriate. There are some quite heavy dynamic contrasts, such as a forte on "peccavi" in Tallis's Suscipe quaeso Domine. Byrd's setting of Psalm 150, Laudibus in sanctis, is a good example of his paying attention to the text, as mentioned before, but I doubt whether this should result in an almost 'baroque' performance. Some pieces are surprisingly slow: White's Lamentations last more than two minutes longer than in the recording by Gallicantus and Byrd's Nunc dimittis is considerably slower than any other recordings which I found on the internet. This piece is also sung mostly piano, in an almost romantic manner. I can't see any reason for that in the text.

In regard to the style of singing I have especially enjoyed the Choir of Westminster Cathedral, with its bright and transparent sound. It is a shame that the director allows some of the lower voices to use vibrato. Historically speaking this recording is not 'authentic', but it has its own authenticity as it documents a practice of more than a century which has been established when the Cathedral was built around 1900. The long practice of performing liturgical music old and new explains that the pronunciation of Latin is not historical, but rather in the Italian manner as was ordered by the Church in the early 20th century. The neglect of historical pronunciation is harder to justify in recordings of professional ensembles performing without any liturgical framework. At least Magnificat pronounces Latin a little differently, although I doubt whether they have payed much attention to the issue. I have heard recordings which were quite different in this respect. John Eliot Gardiner seems not to have given this issue any thought at all. In many respects his interpretations are quite traditional. He is not a specialist in this repertoire, and maybe he should leave it to others to engage in this kind of music.

Johan van Veen (© 2015)

Relevant links:

Choir of Westminster Cathedral
The Monteverdi Choir

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