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"An Elizabethan Christmas"

Helen Charlston, mezzo-sopranoa
Lucy Coxb, Emma Walshec, soprano; Amy Liddon, contraltod; Guy Cutting, tenore; Malachy Frame, baritonef; Edmund Saddington, bass-baritoneg

rec: May 17 - 19, 2019 & Oct 7 - 8, 2020, Sherborne (Gloucestershire), St Magdalen Church
Signum Classics - SIGCD680 ( 2021) (71'29")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - no translations
Cover, track-list & booklet

anon: Sweet was the song the Virgin sanga; William BYRD (1543-1623): An earthly treeacdef; From Virgin's womb (Rejoice, rejoice)abcd; Lullabya; O God that guides the cheerful sunabdefg; Out of the Orient crystal skiesa; Orlando GIBBONS (1583-1625): Fantazy No. 1 a 4 'For Ye Great Dooble Bass'; Fantazy No. 2 a 4 'For Ye Great Dooble Bass'; Anthony HOLBORNE (1545-1602): As it fell on Holie Eve; Heigh Ho Holiday; Lullabie; Pavan; The Cradle; The New-Yeares Gift; Martin PEERSON (1571-1650): Attendite; Upon my lap, my Sovereign sitsadfg; Thomas WEELKES (1576-1623): To shorten Winter's sadnesse

Asako Morikawa, Emily Ashton, Joanna Levine, Sam Standlen, Richard Boothby, viola da gamba

There seems to be no end to the production of discs with music for Christmastide. Many of them include well-known stuff: apart from 'popular' songs, some of which have little or nothing to do with what Christmas is about, we get Bach's Christmas Oratorio or Handel's Messiah, even though Handel performed it never during Advent. Fortunately, now and then the bunch of Christmas discs include a few which have something else to offer, and the present disc is one of them. It is not that the pieces included here are all hardly known, but it is certainly not very common stuff and it is nice to hear them within a framework that gives the listener some insight into the time it was written and performed.

This disc transports us to the late 16th century, and its key figure is William Byrd. He is best-known for his Latin church music, which he published in several collections. Being a Catholic in a time that England was under the rule of the firmly Protestant Elizabeth I was not easy, but he had the good fortune that his music was highly revered, not the least by Elizabeth herself. At the same time, he took advantage of the great demand for music by writing pieces that could be performed in the privacy of the homes of the aristocracy. Among them were so-called consort songs, representing a genre of which Byrd can be considered the creator, as Richard Boothby states in his liner-notes. These were set for a solo voice and a consort of viols. A particular feature of his consort songs is that all the parts are provided with lyrics, which made it possible to perform such a piece vocally, either with or without viols. Some songs end with a chorus, such as From Virgin's womb, which closes with the words "Rejoice, rejoice, with heart and voice. In Christ His birth this day rejoice".

The term 'Christmas music' covers a wide variety of pieces, going from oratorios and cantatas, performed during the liturgy, to 'popular' pieces, often with a pastoral character or lullabies. The pieces included here are not intended for liturgical performance, but are rather serious in content nevertheless. That has everything to do with the time that they were written. Boothby points out that the Christmas season in Elizabethan times was much shorter than today. "[The] 'season' was strictly twelve days from Christmas Eve to Epiphany, or Twelfth Night: 24 December to 6 January". He continues by saying that, although there was much merry making, eating and drinking, under Elizabeth Christmas was much more a religious event, especially in the celebrations at court, "in contrast to the rather more hedonistic celebrations of her father". And this created a "more sober and thoughful atmosphere", which was reflected in Byrd's publications of 1588 (Psalmes, Sonets, & songs of sadness and pietie) and 1589 (Songs of Sundrie Natures).

In Byrd's consort songs the events of Christmas as described in the Bible are in the centre. Out of the Orient crystal skies is about the wise men (in Catholic tradition called the "three kings"), and at the end the angels and the shepherds also make their appearance. From Virgin's womb is about the doctrine of Christ suffering for the sins of mankind: "the precious seed that only saved man". An earthly tree refers to the same doctrine: "Then let us sing the lullabys of sleep to this sweet babe, born to awake us all from drowsy sin that made old Adam weep". Lullaby fits into a tradition of singing a lullaby for baby Jesus. It has a refrain with the text "My sweet little baby, what meanest Thou to cry?" That question is answered in the first stanza, about "the cruel king" (Herodes) "shedding the blood of infants" in his attempt to kill the newborn King. He is mentioned once again in the next stanza, about the "three kings" through whom Herodes wants to find out the whereabouts of Jesus. The last stanza then refers to the prophets of the Old Testament and the sibyls, foretelling the birth of Jesus from the virgin.

In addition to songs by Byrd, we hear some pieces by contemporaries, such as Martin Peerson and Thomas Weelkes. Peerson's Upon my lap my sovereign sits is another lullaby, which has a refrain for five voices: "Sing lullaby, my little boy, sing lullaby my only joy!". The first stanza sums up the mixture of the popular and the serious: "Upon my lap my sovereign sits and sucks upon my breast; meantime his love maintains my life and gives my sense her rest". The anonymous Sweet was the song the virgin sang is another lullaby with a refrain, again with a generally serious content, as the reference to Jesus as the Saviour indicates.

Two vocal items are more about the season in general. In its character Weelkes's To shorten Winter's sadness is comparable with songs about spring and the month of May, given its refrain: "Fa la la". The programme ends fittingly with a piece about New Year by Byrd, O God that guides the cheerful sun: "O God that guides the cheerful sun by motions strange the year to frame, which now return'd whence it begun". The text connects the New Year with the new beginning that Jesus's birth promises to be: "Th'old year by course is past and gone, Old Adam Lord from us expel".

In between the vocal items Fretwork plays a number of instrumental pieces, some of which are connected to Christmas, whereas others are of a more general character. Holborne's As it fell on Holie Eve is clear enough, and although The cradle and Lullabie don't specifically refer to Christmas, the connection is not far fetched. His The New-Yeares Gift and Heigh ho holiday are rightly played just before Byrd's song that closes the programme. The pieces by Orlando Gibbons with ye great dooble bass - referring to a viola da gamba larger than the bass viol and tuned a fourth below the standard bass - bring us to the court where such music was played by professionals.

Most pieces on this disc may have been recorded before, but even so it is nice to hear them as part of a programme of Christmas music. Byrd's consort songs are masterpieces and it is very nice to hear some of them being sung so well as here by Helen Charlston, a young singer whom I have heard in several recordings recently and whom I rate highly. She has a very nice voice, and seems to feel very at home in early music. She sings with little vibrato; I would have liked her to avoid it altogether, as in consort songs the singer is not a soloist but rather one of the voices. However, I found it hardly disturbing, and I have really enjoyed her singing here.

There are two issues. First, I regret that a modern pronunciation is used. Second, in Byrd's Lullaby the last stanza includes the phrase "Whom caitliffs none can 'tray". The last word undoubtedly means "betray". Then why does Ms Charlston pronounce it as "try"? This seems to me an error that should have been corrected.

In the refrains and choruses she is joined by a few other singers whose voices blend well. Fretwork is the perfect partner in the songs, and plays the consort pieces either solemnly, or, if needed, with vivacity and audible pleasure.

If you look for a really good disc for the Christmas season, this is one you should investigate.

Johan van Veen ( 2021)

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Helen Charlston

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