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John AMNER (1579 - 1641): "Complete Consort Music"

Dublin Consort Singers; Fretworka
Dir: Mark Keane

rec: Feb 10 - 12, 2018, London, Wathen Hall, Barnes
Rubicon - RCD1032 ( 2019) (72'21")
Liner-notes: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

[in order of appearance] Love we in one consenting a 3; Let false surmises perish a 3; Away with weak complainings a 3; O come thou spirit divinest a 3; O love beseeming well a 3; Distressed soul a 4; Sweet are the thoughts a 4; Come let's rejoice a 4; Saint Mary now a 4 (Part 1) - At length to Christ a 4 (Part 2) - But he the God of love a 4 (Part 3); Woe is me a 4; Remember not, Lord, our offences a 5; Thus sings that heavenly quire a 5 (Part 1) - The heavens stood all amazed a 5 (Part 2); How doth the city remain solitary a 5; He that descended man to be a 5; I will sing unto the Lord a 5; O ye little flock a 6 (Part 1) - Fear not a 6 (Part 2) - And they cry a 6 (Part 3)a; Lo, how from heaven a 6 (Part 1) - I bring you tiding of joys a 6 (Part 2)a; A stranger here a 6; My Lord is hence removed and laid a 6a; An Elegy in Memory of Master Thomas Hynson a 6; Pavana; Galliarda; Consider, all ye passers by a 5a; I am for peace a 5a

Jessica Haig, Louise Prickett, Leonora Dawson-Bowling, mezzo-soprano; Peter Di-Toro, Matthew Pochin, tenor; Geoff Williams, baritone; Richard Smith, bass

John Amner is one of those whom musicologists like to rank among the 'minor composers'. His name seldom appears in recordings and at concert programmes. As far as I have been able to check, the present disc is the first which is entirely devoted to his oeuvre.

Ely is the town where Amner was born and where he died. There he worked all his life; members of his family were also closely connected to Ely Cathedral, which played a central role in his career. He started there as a boy chorister, then went to Oxford to study music, and returned in 1610 to occupy the post of informator choristarum. In 1613 he was awarded a BMus degree from Oxford University. Amner was subsequently ordained to the diaconate, and later appointed vicarius (minor canon); so he drew the annual stipends of both organist and prebendary.

Amner's extant oeuvre comprises almost exclusively sacred music. His only instrumental works are the two pieces for viols included on the present disc and a keyboard piece. The largest part of the programme is included in the only printed edition in Amner's oeuvre, Sacred Hymnes of 3, 4, 5 and 6 parts for Voyces and Vyols, published in London in 1615. It is notable that Anthony J. Greening, in his article on Amner in New Grove, mentions several of the pieces in this collection, but otherwise does not pay any explicit attention to the edition as such. That is an omission, as its music differs from the anthems which Amner composed for Ely Cathedral.

The booklet includes much useful information in its liner-notes, written by Mark Keane. The collection was dedicated to William Bourcher, the Third Earl of Bath, who was Amner's patron. The final piece is An Elegy in Memory of Master Thomas Hynson, who was Bourcher's secretary and also related to him as he was married to a first cousin of his employer. It seems likely that the Elegy is the result of a commission by Bourchier. Most of the texts are paraphrases of biblical passages. Both the dedication of the collection and the character of the music seem to suggest that these pieces were not so much intended for liturgical use, but rather for domestic music making. A number of pieces have the form of a canzonet and are scored for three voices. The title of the collection refers to viols, which were usually not used in church or chapels - except the Chapel Royal and the private chapels of some aristocrats - but was quite commonly used in domestic surroundings.

The reference to viols raises some questions with regard to the way the pieces are performed. Unfortunately, I have no access to the scores. (It is probably telling that the Petrucci Music Library does not include any piece by Amner.) I wonder how the participation of viols is indicated in this collection. Does Amner prescribe their use in particular pieces? Fact is that the first eighteen pieces on this disc are performed vocally, without the participation of viols. Of the remaining ten vocal pieces, eight are performed by voices and viols. Even if the use of viols is not specifically mentioned, I would have liked them to play a more prominent role, for instance by playing colla voce in some of the three- and four-part items. The title of this disc is probably a little misleading: many music lovers may expect music for viol consort, and may be surprised that only two pieces of this kind are included. The word 'consort' here refers to the vocal consort, or rather a group of musicians singing and/or playing.

Another question regards the first five pieces which are clearly a cycle, considering the similarity in construction and musical material. Their content also links them together as they are about the love of God which is expressed in his act of salvation. Therefore one may expect additions like 'part 1', 'part 2' etcetera to the various canzonets, as is the case with Saint Mary now and its two next parts. However, in the work-list they are listed separately. Again, I would have liked to check how they are listed in the printed edition.

There are apparently no explicit references to times of the ecclesiastical year, but in a number of cases, the text clearly refers to particular events, such as Christmastide. O ye little rock, a cycle of three pieces, is the scene in which the angels tell the shepherds that the Saviour is born. The two pieces entitled Lo, how heaven like stars and I bring you tiding of joys are about the same event. How doth the city remain solitary that was full of people is connected to Passiontide, as it quotes the words of Christ about the fate of Jerusalem shortly before the start of the process that leads to his crucifixion. Consider, all ye passers by is very similar to the traditional Tenebrae Responsories sung during the last three days of Holy Week. This is not part of the collection of 1615, but of a collection of partbooks in Christ Church, Oxford. One of the parts is missing, and here we get a reconstruction by David Pinto. My Lord is hence removed is about the angel telling Jesus's followers that he is risen from the dead. He that descended man to be is about Christ's ascension. This piece also includes one of the most striking examples of text illustration: the voices imitate trumpets on the text "The trumpets sound".

Ensembles that want to perform English music from the Elizabethan or Jacobean periods usually turn to the oeuvre of the main composers of the time. That may be understandable, considering its quality, but as a result too much music by lesser-known composers is ignored. From that perspective, one can only wholeheartedly welcome a production like this disc with music by John Amner. I would like to hear more to get a broader perspective of his qualities as a composer. I have certainly enjoyed this recording of his 1615 collection of sacred hymnes. It is a shame that the performances are not entirely satisfying. The line-up of one voice per part is certainly right, given the character of these pieces and their likely intention. I have already mentioned my questions regarding the participation - or lack of it - of the viol consort. The vocal performances are different: the upper voices are fine, and one of the tenors has a lovely voice; he is the soloist in Consider, all ye passers by. But some other male singers allow themselves quite some vibrato, which damages the ensemble.

It is disappointing that the track-list does not mention which singers are involved in the performance of the various pieces. Whereas the members of the vocal ensemble are listed, the players of Fretwork are not mentioned, which is very odd.

Despite some issues, I recommend this disc to anyone who would like to broaden his knowledge of English music from the decades around 1600. There is more than Dowland, Gibbons and Byrd. Let's hope more ensembles and performers are ready to look beyond the obvious.

Johan van Veen ( 2021)

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