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CD reviews

Music from the Baldwin Partbooks

[I] "In the Midst of Life - Music from the Baldwin Partbooks I"
Dir: Owen Rees
rec: Jan 18 - 20, 2014, Oxford, Church of St Michael and All Angels
Signum Classics - SIGCD408 (© 2015) (68'18")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

William BYRD (1543-1623): Audivi vocem de caelo a 5; Circumdederunt me dolores mortis a 5; Dericke GERARDE (c1530-c1580): Sive vigilem a 6; William MUNDY (c1528-c1591): Sive vigilem a 5; Robert PARSONS (c1535-1571/72): Credo quod redemptor meus vivit a 6; Libera me Domine a 5; Peccantem me quotidie a 5; John SHEPPARD (c1515-1559): Media vita in morte sumus a 6; Thomas TALLIS (c1505-1585): Nunc dimittis a 5; John TAVERNER (1490-1545): Quemadmodum a 6

Esther Brazil, Amy Haworth, Katy Hill, Roya Stuart-Rees, soprano; Rory McCleery, Matthew Venner, alto; Guy Cutting, Ashley Turnell, tenor; Greg Skidmore, Giles Underwood, bass

[II] "Loquebantur - Music from the Baldwin Partbooks"
The Marian Consorta; The Rose Consort of Violsb
Dir: Rory McCleery
rec: Jan 8 - 11, 2015, Oxford, Chapel of Merton College
Delphian Records - DCD34160 (© 2015) (66'12")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - translations: E
Cover & track-list

Hugh ASTON (c1485-1558): Hugh Aston's Maske a 4b; Elway BEVIN (c1554-1638): Browning a 3b; John BALDWIN (c1560-1615): Coockow as I me walkedb; William BYRD: Canon Six in One a 6b; O salutaris hostia a 6a; Alfonso FERRABOSCO I (1543-1588): Da pacem Domine a 6a; Dericke GERARDE: Sive vigilem a 6a; Christian HOLLANDER (c1510-1568/69): Dum transisset Sabbatum a 5a; Orlandus LASSUS (1530-32/1594): Ubi est Abel a 5b; William MUNDY: Adhaesit pavimento a 6a; Adolescentulus sum ego a 7a; Robert PARSONS: The Song Called Trumpets a 6b; John SHEPPARD: Ave maris stella a 7a; Thomas TALLIS: Loquebantur variis linguis a 7a; Suscipe quaeso Domine a 7; John TAVERNER: Quemadmodum a 6b

[MC] Emma Walshe, Gwendolen Martin, soprano; Daniel Collins, Rory McCleery, alto; Guy Cutting, Ashley Turnell, tenor; Rupert Reid, baritone; Christopher Borrett, bass
[RCV] Ibi Aziz, John Bryan, Alison Crum, Andrew Kerr, Roy Marks, Peter Wendland, viola da gamba

A large part of the sacred repertoire written before the baroque era was never published and has been preserved in manuscript. That is particularly the case with English sacred music. The Cantiones Sacrae which were published in 1575 by Thomas Tallis and William Byrd was one of the very few editions from before 1600. The music which renowned ensembles, such as the Tallis Scholars, The Sixteen or Contrapunctus - to name but a few - is mostly taken from some important manuscripts. Among the best-known is the so-called Eton Choirbook which includes some of the earliest specimens of English polyphony. The two discs to be reviewed here comprise pieces from a later date, taken from another significant manuscript, known as the Baldwin Partbooks.

They are named after John Baldwin (c1560-1615) who was a tenor lay clerk at St George's Chapel, Windsor, in 1575. He became a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal in 1598. Several compositions from his pen are known (the Rose Consort of Viols plays one of his consort pieces) but he has become far more important as a copyist. The Baldwin Partbooks comprise almost 170 pieces which Baldwin copied between about 1575 and 1581. Although this source includes some pieces which are also known from other sources - the above-mentioned Cantiones Sacrae by Tallis and Byrd is bound into the end of the manuscript - a large number are only known from this manuscript. Unfortunately the Tenor part is missing. In some cases it can be reconstructed, for instance if the piece is based on a plainchant cantus firmus in the Tenor. In modern performances ensembles make use of several reconstructions. The Marian Consort, for instance, performs pieces which are reconstructed by Francis Steele, Magnus Williamson and Anthony Milledge.

The Baldwin Partbooks span a period of about 50 years and show the development of English polyphony during the 16th century. The main composers of the time are represented and some of them are included in the programme which Contrapunctus has recorded. The earliest composer is John Taverner; both discs include the same piece, Quemadmodum, but in different scorings. This piece has been preserved in several sources without a text but it is assumed that it was originally conceived as a vocal work as its title suggests. Contrapunctus sings it on the text of the first two verses from Psalm 41 (42), Quemadmodum desiderat cervus. On the Delphian disc the Rose Consort of Viols performs it as it has come down to us.

These two discs have been released simultaneously; it is a matter of good fortune that there is only one duplication: Sive vigilem by Dericke Gerarde. He was of Flemish birth and was active in England in the third quarter of the 16th century. It is not known for sure whether music was his main occupation but the number of extant works - around 170 - points in that direction. It is a setting of an anonymous text which makes use of images from several books of the Bible, such as Revelation: "Whether I wake, whether I sleep, whether I eat or drink, always I seem to hear the trumpet's sound and the voice of an angel crying and saying: Arise, ye dead, and come to be judged". Gerarde illustrates this line with fanfare-like figures which come off better in Contrapunctus's performance than in that of the Marian Consort. In comparison William Mundy's setting is more concise; he especially illustrates the urgency of the angel's exclamations through repetition at a higher pitch.

The pièce de résistance in Contrapunctus's recording is the very long antiphon Media vita by John Sheppard, which takes 23 minutes in this performance. It contains a plainchant setting of the Nunc dimittis, but it is the polyphony which takes much time, especially because of the slow tempo which Sheppard seems to have preferred, considering the way the music has been written down. This piece was written for performance during the final part of the penitential season of Lent. It therefore fits well into the programme of this disc which is devoted to pieces about mortality: "the fear of death and eternal torment, anticipation of the Day of Judgement, and the soul's longing to meet God", as Owen Rees writes in his liner-notes.

It is the first of a series of discs with music from the Baldwin Partbooks. In contrast the disc by the Marian Consort and the Rose Consort of Viols seems to be an isolated recording. In a way it offers more variety and includes some pieces which may well appear in later recordings by Contrapunctus. Among them are compositions from outside England. In his liner-notes Rory McCleery counts Alfonso Ferrabosco among the "Continental composers". Strictly speaking he is right as he was from Bologna where he also died. But from 1562 to 1578 he was a courtier to Queen Elizabeth I and during this time he may have written the motet included here, Da pacem Domine. If it was written earlier Ferrabosco's presence could explain that this piece was included in the Baldwin Partbooks. It is interesting to note that the two other pieces are attributed to the wrong composers. Ubi es Abel is included under the name of 'Dowglas' but is from the pen of Orlandus Lassus; it is performed here instrumentally. Dum transisset Sabbatum is attributed to 'Mr Orlandus' but was in fact written by Christian Hollander. He was probably born in Dordrecht (southeasterly of Rotterdam), worked for some time in Bruges and joined the chapel of emperor Ferdinand I in 1557. He died in Innsbruck. He "recycles a substantial amount of of musical material from the first part of his motet in its second half; as a result only the former is recorded here". That is a rather odd decision. Another motet by Hollander is included in the first volume of the series of recordings devoted to the "Leiden Choirbooks".

The Baldwin Partbooks also include some instrumental pieces which are played here by the Rose Consort of Viols. Hugh Aston's Maske is incomplete; the fourth part which is a basso ostinato can be reconstructed as Byrd included it in his Hugh Aston's Ground for keyboard. Byrd himself is represented with Canon Six in One which dates from 1600; its six parts are derived from a single line. It is followed immediately by his motet O salutaris hostia which consists of three canonic voices and includes a remarkable number of false relations.

Because of the difference in programmes these discs are complementary rather than competitive. As far as the performances are concerned I clearly prefer Contrapunctus (ironically Rory McCleery also participated in its recording). It has a better balance between the voice groups; in the Marian Consort the upper voices tend to dominate. Contrapunctus's ensemble is also preferable; the voices of the Marian Consort don't blend that well, also because of the slight vibrato in several of the voices. In John Sheppard's Ave maris stella the odd verses are sung in plainchant by all the voices in unison. I wonder whether that is in accordance with the performance practice at the time; it seems more likely that only the low voices took care of plainchant. The instrumental pieces receive fine performances from the Rose Consort of Viols.

Johan van Veen (© 2016)

Relevant links:

The Marian Consort
Rose Consort of Viols

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