musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Thomas WEELKES (1576 - 1623): "Grant the King a long life - English Anthems & Instrumental Music"

The Choir of Sidney Sussex College Cambridge; Fretwork; Benjamin Atkinson, Daniel Smith, organ
Dir: David Skinner

rec: July 4 - 6, 2011, Cambridge, Chapel of Sidney Sussex College
Obsidian - CD708 ( 2012) (63'22")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - no translations
Cover & track-list

Alleluia. I heard a voicee; All people clap your hands; Fantasy 'for 2 Basses'g; Give ear, O Lordd; Give the king thy judgements; Gloria in excelsis Deo; Hosanna to the Son of David; If King Manassesabcf; Lord to thee I make my moana; Most mighty and all-knowing Lorda; O how amiable; O Lord, grant the King a long life; O mortal mana; Pavan a 5 No. 1 'Mr Weelkes his Lacrimae'; Pavan a 5 No. 3 'Mr Weelkes his 3. Pavin'; Pavan a 5 No. 5; Voluntary No. 1; Voluntary No. 2; What joy so trueabc; When David heard

[CSSC; soli] Eleanor Cramera, Catherine Shawb, soprano; Rosemary Dilnot, contraltoc; James Cormack, tenord; Laurens Macklone, Christopher Webbf, bass
[Fretwork] Richard Boothby, Richard Tunnicliffe, Liam Byrne, Asako Morikawa, Reiko Ichise, Bill Huntg, viola da gamba

Thomas Weelkes was one of the best composers of his time, and died in 1623, the same year as John Dowland and William Byrd. Despite the great interest in these two illustrious contemporaries, some of his music has become very well known. That goes especially for his sacred madrigal When David heard and the anthem Hosanna to the Son of David which are on the repertoire of many choirs and vocal ensembles, and not only in Britain. However, he was especially famous for his madrigals: between 1597 and 1608 four books were printed. This part of his oeuvre has not received the attention it deserves, and the present disc doesn't change that.

Little is known about his formative years. In 1598 he was appointed organist of Winchester College; here he stayed for about four years, and in this time he composed most of his madrigals. One of his compositions was included in the collection The Triumphes of Oriana (1601) which was put together by Thomas Morley in honour of Queen Elizabeth. At some time between October 1601 and October 1602 he moved to Chichester where he became organist and informator choristarum. Here he remained until 1617 when he was dismissed from his posts because of frequent unauthorised absence and public drunkenness. The year before he had been reported to the bishop as being "noted and famed for a comon drunckard and notorious swearer & blasphemer". He continued to play the organ in the cathedral on an irregular basis. After the death of his wife in 1622 he seems to have spent much time at the house of a friend in London where he died the following year.

Although Weelkes' contributions to the genre of the madrigal are especially noteworthy, he is also considered one of the main composers of sacred music. He composed many settings of the Canticles, but these have all been preserved incomplete which is especially regrettable as they are rated very highly in regard to musical quality. His full and verse anthems have fared better, but here again many pieces have not survived intact. Weelkes also composed some instrumental music, especially for viol consort. Although he was educated and active as an organist, his oeuvre includes only a couple of keyboard works.

This disc offers a survey of Weelkes' oeuvre, excluding the madrigals. It shows that there is a strong connection between the anthems and the madrigals in the way the text is treated. A piece like When David heard is even often treated as an anthem and sung by church choirs, although it is a sacred madrigal. This means that a performance with a relatively small number of singers - probably even one voice per part - in an intimate atmosphere is to be preferred. Here we hear again a performance by a full choir, although the acoustic of the Chapel of Sidney Sussex College in Cambridge has the intimacy which a madrigal requires. This combination makes for a not really satisfactory performance: a choral interpretation requires a larger acoustic, an intimate acoustic a smaller ensemble.

The acoustic is perfect for the smaller-scale pieces, such as the consort music and the consort songs. Most mighty and all-knowing Lord is the only contribution by Weelkes to the latter genre which has come down to us, but here we hear some other pieces in this scoring. The full anthems Lord, to thee I make my moan and O mortal man are treated as consort songs: the upper voice is sung, the other parts are performed on viols.

These consort songs are given a fine performance by the soprano Eleanor Cramer. She is one of the members of the choir; some of her colleagues take care of the solo parts in the verse anthems, and do so very nicely. The singing of the choir as a whole doesn't impress me that much. It is definitely a good choir, but its singing is a little too straightforward. Moreover, as I indicated above there is a kind of conflict between the size of the choir - and part of the repertoire - and the rather dry acoustic of the chapel. In a more reverberant acoustic the anthems would have come off better than they do here.

Even so, this disc is a good way to become acquainted with the oeuvre of Thomas Weelkes. But we still have to wait for a complete recording of his madrigals.

Johan van Veen ( 2014)

Relevant links:

Choir of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge

CD Reviews