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"In chains of gold - The English Pre-Restoration Verse Anthem Vol. 2"

Magdalena Consorta; Fretworkb; His Majestys Sagbutts & Cornettsc; William Lyons, sackbutd; Silas Wollston, organe
Dir: William Hunt

rec: Jan 25 - 27, 2019, London, St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb
Signum Classics - SIGCD609 (© 2020) (70'29")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - no translations
Cover, track-list & booklet

John BULL (1562/63-1628): Almighty God, which by the leading of a starab; Fantasia No. 16e; Deliver me, O Godae; William BYRD (c1540-1623): Christ rising againab; Fantasia No. 46e; Have mercy upon me, O Godab; Hear my prayerab; I will give laudab; Look and bow downace; O Lord, rebuke me notab; Teach me, O Lordae; Benjamin COSYN (c1580-1653): Voluntary No. 1e; Voluntary No. 3e; Edmund HOOPER (c1553-1621): Hearken ye nationsab; O God of godsacde; Thomas MORLEY (1557/58-1602): Out of the deepae; John MUNDY (c1555-1630): Sing joyfullyab

[MC] ZoŽ Brookshaw, Helena Thomson, triplex; Elisabeth Paul, Martha McLorinan, Eleanor Minney, mean; Samuel Boden, Benedict Hymas, Hugo Hymas, Nicholas Madden, contratenor; Greg Skidmore, Simon Gallear, tenor; Peter Harvey, Will Gaunt, bass
[FW] Asako Morikawa, Emily Ashton, Jo Levine, Susanna Pell, Sam Stadlen, Richard Boothby, viola da gamba
[HMSC] Jeremy West, Jamie Savan, Helen Roberts, cornetts; Sue Addison, Stephanie Dyer, Stephen Saunders, sackbut

The disc under review here is the second of an interesting project: the recording of English verse anthems written before the Restoration. A few years ago, the first disc was released, which was entirely devoted to the consort anthems by Orlando Gibbons. In this second volume, the central figure is William Byrd.

His contribution to the genre may cause surprise. After all, he was a lifelong Catholic, and a large part of his sacred output consists of music for the Catholic liturgy, often performed in secret, as Catholic worship was formally forbidden under the rule of the firmly Protestant Elizabeth I. However, music for the Anglican liturgy was in great demand, and Byrd undoubtedly wanted to show his ability to write music in the new genres, such as anthems and services.

The anthem basically replaced the motet in Catholic services. It came in two forms: the full anthem and the verse anthem. The former was to be sung by the choir, whereas in the second the text - either taken from the Bible or from the Book of Common Prayer - was divided into sections for full choir and verses for one or more solo voices. The latter genre is the focus of this project.

This recording has several interesting aspects. First, the roles of solo voices and choir are different. In verse anthems, the successive verses are usually sung in alternation by soloists and choir. However, on this disc we also find two other forms. The first is that the choir repeats the last words of each solo episode. That is the case, for instance, in I will give laud, a setting of verses from Psalm 34 in a metrical paraphrase by Thomas Sternhold. The second is unique for Byrd: in the three pieces that open this disc, each solo passage is directly repeated by the choir. These pieces are settings of the opening verses from three of the traditional penitential psalms. Andrew Johnstone, in his liner-notes, suggests that Byrd may have planned to set the remaining four psalms as well, but these three are the only ones that have come down to us. They were probably not intended for liturgical use, but rather for private devotion.

The second interesting aspect of this recording is the role of the accompanying instruments. Because of the inclusion of solo passages, verse anthems always require instrumental accompaniment. The use of the organ was common practice in most churches. However, such anthems could also be performed in chapels, such as the Chapel Royal, and the private chapels of members of the aristocracy. Here the line-up was more varied. In the Chapel Royal, for instance, the voices could be supported by a consort of viols. As one will have noticed, in this recording a third ensemble participates: His Majestys Sagbutts & Cornetts. Whereas on the continent cornetts and sackbuts frequently participated in performances of sacred music, playing either colla voce or substituting for one or several voices, their role in England was rather limited. They mostly performed in outdoor performances. Here they take part in two pieces. The first is Byrd's Look and bow down, whose text is attributed to Queen Elizabeth I herself, apparently written in 1588 at the time that England escaped the invasion of the Armada, and with it of Counter-Reformation forces. "[On] 24 November the Queen entered the City of London in state, for the first time since her accession thirty years and one week previously, to offer thanks at St Paul's Cathedral" (booklet). It seems likely that the anthem was performed in St Paul's churchyard, and that would justify an accompaniment with cornetts and sackbuts.

The other item performed here with winds is O God of Gods by Edmund Hooper. Today, he is a largely unknown quantity, but he was highly regarded in his time. In 1588 he became Master of the Choristers at Westminster Abbey and was later appointed Gentleman of the Chapel Royal. There he was also Orlando Gibbons's colleague in the position of organist. O God of Gods was written for the anniversary of the succession of James I. The performance tries to recreate the way it may have been first performed at court. The piece was later adapted for ecclesiastical use. Staying with Hooper, the other piece from his pen is remarkable in a different way. Hearken, ye nations was written in memory of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. In his notes to Hooper's pieces, William Hunt characterizes this piece thus: "Major and minor harmonies are hurled into dissonant collision in cadences that border occasionally on musical hysteria, to express both the horror and the relief of carnage narrowly avoided." It is an astonishing piece indeed, and the two anthems by Hooper performed here make one wish that more of his output is going to be recorded.

The programme is completed with anthems by some of Byrd's contemporaries: John Bull, Thomas Morley and John Mundy. Like Byrd's Look and bow down, the text of Bull's Deliver me, O God is attributed to Elizabeth I. Mundy's Sing joyfully is a setting of the first four verses from Psalm 81, Out of the deep by Morley sets the entire Psalm 130, one of the penitential psalms. Bull's Almighty God is an example of an anthem, based on a text from the Book of Common Prayer.

The vocal items are separated by organ pieces from the pen of Byrd, Bull and Cosyn. The latter has become best-known for the Cosyn Virginal Book in which he included his own keyboard pieces but also many works by the likes of Tallis, Byrd and Bull.

The verse anthem repertoire from the late 16th century to the Restoration (1660) is large and versatile. It is well worth being explored in a project like this. I largely enjoyed the first volume, and I was impressed by the music on this disc, as it includes little-known pieces by Byrd, and - as I already indicated - two intriguing anthems by Hooper. Unfortunately I am far less impressed by the performances. There is certainly something to enjoy: some anthems are sung rather well, and the organ pieces are given fine performances. My main problem is that individual singers are allowed to use quite a lot of vibrato. Some really can hardly sing a note without it. It seriously damages the ensemble, and some of the solo contributions are hard to swallow. I just don't understand the reasons for this manner of performing this repertoire. From that angle, this disc is pretty disappointing, which is all the more regrettable as the programme is very interesting and there is probably little chance that we will see a better recording in the foreseeable future.

Johan van Veen (© 2020)

Relevant links:

Magdalena Consort
His Majestys Sagbutts & Cornetts
Silas Wollston

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