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Orlando GIBBONS (1583 - 1625): "In chains of gold - Complete Consort Anthems"

Magdalena Consorta; Fretworkb; His Majestys Sagbutts & Cornettsc; Kirsty Whatley, harpd; Silas Woolston, organe
Dir: William Hunt

rec: Nov 17 - 19, 2016, Cambridge, St George's Church, Chesterton
Signum Classics - SIGCD511 ( 2017) (66'38")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - no translations
Cover, track-list & booklet

Behold, thou hast made my daysab; Blessed are all they that fear the Lordabde; Do not repine, fair sunab; Glorious and powerful Godab; Great King of Godsace; In Nomine a 5 No. 1b; In Nomine a 5 No. 2b; In Nomine a 5 No. 3b; Lord, grant graceabce; O all true faithful heartsace; See, see, the Word is incarnateab; Sing unto the Lordab; This is the record of Johnab; We praise thee, O Fatherab

[MC] Julia Doyle, treble; Catherine King, Eleanor Minney, mean; Charles Daniels, Samuel Boden, Jeremy Budd, Nicholas Todd, contratenor; Greg Skidmore, Simon Gallear, tenor; Peter Harvey, Will Gaunt, bassus
[FW] Asako Morikawa, Emily Ashton, Reiko Ichise, Sam Stadlen, Richard Boothby, viola da gamba
[HMSC] Jeremy West, Jamie Savan, Helen Roberts, cornett; Abigail Newman, Stephanie Dyer, Stephen Saunders, sackbut

The disc under review here is the first of a new and interesting project: the recording of English verse anthems written before the Restoration. The first volume is devoted to the complete verse anthems by Orlando Gibbons.

Gibbons was a composer of high reputation, as is shown by the jobs which were given to him. Having been a chorister at King's College in Cambridge, he was mainly active as a keyboard player. From 1603 until his death in 1625 he acted as musician in the Chapel Royal. In 1617 he became one of the 17 musicians in the private chapel of Charles, Prince of Wales, and in 1619 he was appointed virginalist in the royal privy chamber. In 1625 his death after a short illness was widely mourned, in particular in Court circles.

Gibbons has become best-known for his vocal music, and especially his sacred output. It comprises a number of Services, which include settings of texts like Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis, the Jubilate and the Te Deum. The largest part consists of anthems, either full anthems for a choir for four to eight voices, or verse anthems. The latter are scored for one or several solo voices, choir and organ. The use of the organ was common practice in most churches. However, such anthems could also be performed in chapels, among them the Royal Chapel, and in the private chapels of members of the aristocracy. There the line-up was more varied. In the Royal Chapel, for instance, the voices could be supported by a consort of viols.

The verse anthems usually open with a section for one or several solo voices. This entire section - or sometimes its second half - is then repeated by the choir. The same happens in the next section, until the end of the piece. Gibbons's anthems are rooted in the stile antico, which means that they are dominated by counterpoint. That not only manifests itself in the tutti episodes, but also in the passages for solo voices, thanks to the participation of a consort of viols. Gibbons was also a composer of madrigals, in which he paid much attention to a musical illustration of the text. The same can be observed in his anthems. That is the case here, for instance, in the phrase "and by rising to life again" in We praise thee, o Father, where the text is depicted by ascending figures. The various voices sing descending figures on the words "when I go down into the pit" (Sing unto the Lord). The verse anthems are largely syllabic and Gibbons' word setting is strongly declamatory. Performers should not exaggerate here; this is no Italian music in the style of Caccini or Monteverdi. The singers of the Magdalena Consort are well aware of this; only here and there I observed an emphasis on single words, which seemed a bit overdone.

Some of Gibbons's verse anthems are well-known; that goes especially for See, see, the Word is incarnate and This is the record of John. Far lesser known are Lord, grant grace and Do not repine, fair sun. The latter is a special case, as the text is not sacred, but secular. It is "a welcome ode for that Scottish Progress of 1617, to mildly pagan verse by Joseph Hall, one of the English bishops corralled into dancing attendance", David Pinto writes in the booklet.

The very fact that some of them are seldom performed justifies a complete recording of Gibbons's verse anthems. However, there are a couple of aspects of the interpretation which make it even more interesting. The first concerns the pitch. "The sacred anthems and instrumental pieces on this recording are performed at A466, which fits closely with the findings of recent research into English organ and choir pitch of the period, confirmed by the evidence of some surviving cornetts", William Hunt states in his notes on the performance. As a result the parts usually sung by altos - either male or female - are performed here by contratenors, high tenors which are comparable with the French-type haute-contres. It allows the performance of these pieces at written pitch, whereas a participation of altos requires an upward transposition.

The viols are "smaller-scale" English instruments, which have equally been tuned at A466, "something that, as far as we are aware, has not hitherto been done with an English consort". Hunt believes that it creates "a remarkable translucency", and that is confirmed by this recording, not only in the vocal items, but also the three In Nomines. It is probably something to get used to for those, who often listen to English consort music at a lower pitch. I already referred to the fact that the participation of a consort of viols in sacred music was mostly confined to private chapels. There an instrument like the harp may also have been used. It was quite common at the time, but its role in English music of the 17th century is poorly documented on disc.

Lastly, in some items the instrumental parts are played by an ensemble of cornetts and sackbuts. Unfortunately Hunt doesn't mention this aspect. There can be no doubt that these instruments were played in England during the 17th century. One of the best-known pieces for cornetts and sackbuts is Matthew Locke's Music for His Majesty's Sackbuts & Cornetts. However, I have always assumed that they were almost exclusively used in open-air performances. However, it seems that they, like the harp, rank among those instruments, which were played in private chapels.

Obviously much effort has been made to create a performance, which does justice to the historical circumstances, in which Gibbons's verse anthems were performed. From that angle it is disappointing that the performers didn't go one step further by adopting a historical pronunciation of English. In this case the use of modern English is probably less problematic than in secular music, as here the texts don't include rhyme, which is where the difference between historical and modern English manifests itself most clearly. Even so, it would have contribute to an even stronger sense of 'authenticity'.

Overall I liked the performances. Charles Daniels is especially impressive in his interpretations of the contratenor parts, for instance in Behold, thou hast made my days and This is the record of John. Most other singers also do well in their solo episodes. Unfortunately some of them use quite a bit of vibrato, which is historically untenable and also damages the tutti episodes. However, it did not spoil my enjoyment and it does not withhold me from urging anyone, who is interested in this repertoire, to add this disc to his collection. Apart from Gibbons's excellent music, this disc offers some particularly interesting perspectives in regard to performance practice. I eagerly look forward to further installments in this project.

Johan van Veen ( 2018)

Relevant links:

Magdalena Consort
His Majestys Sagbutts & Cornetts

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