musica Dei donum

CD reviews

"The Triumphs of Oriana"

The King's Singers

rec: March 9 - 12, 1998, Mandelsloh, St Osdag
em records - 02999-001 (67'13")

John Bennet: All creatures now are merry-minded a 5; Richard Carlton: Calm was the air and clear the sky a 5; Michael Cavendish: Come, gentle swains a 5; William Cobbold: With wreaths of rose and laurel a 5; Michael East: Hence stars! too dim of light a 5; John Farmer: Fair nymphs I heard one telling a 6; Ellis Gibbons: Long live fair Oriana a 5; Round about her charret a 6; John Hilton: Fair Oriana, beauty's queen a 5; John Holmes: Thus Bonny-boots the birthday celebrated a 5; Thomas Hunt: Hark! did ye ever hear so sweet a singing? a 6; Edward Johnson: Come, blessed bird a 6; Robert Jones: Fair Oriana, seeming to wink at folly a 6; George Kirbye: Bright Phoebus greets most clearly a 6; John Lisley: Fair Cytherea presents her doves a 6; George Marson: The nymphs and shepherds danced a 5; John Milton: Fair Orian, in the morn a 6; Thomas Morley: Arise, awake, awake a 5; Hard by a crystal fountain a 6; John Mundy: Lightly she whipped o'er the dales a 5; Richard Nicolson: Sing, shepherds all, and in your roundelays a 5; Daniel Norcombe: With angel's face and brightness a 5; Thomas Tomkins: The fauns and satyrs tripping a 5; Thomas Weelkes: As Vesta was from Latmos hill descending a 6; John Wilbye: The lady Oriana a 6

David Hurley, Nigel Short, alto; Paul Phoenix, tenor; Philip Lawson, Gabriel Crouch, baritone; Stephen Connolly, bass

"The Triumphs of Oriana" is a collection of 25 madrigals on English texts by English composers of the second half of the 16th century. It was compiled by Thomas Morley, as a way of thanking Queen Elizabeth for granting him the monopoly to print music. All 25 madrigals end with the same line: "Then sang the shepherds and nymphs of Diana: Long live fair Oriana" (there are two madrigals with a textual variation). 'Oriana' was the heroine of the chivalric romance Amadis de Gaul, with whom Elizabeth had been equated. And it was appropriate that the nymphs and shepherds of Diana - goddess of chastity - were singing the praise of the unmarried Elizabeth, the 'Virgin Queen'.
Although Morley wanted to show that English composers were able to write madrigals, just like the Italians, the Italian influence is unmistakable. First, the collection itself was modelled after an Italian original, Il Trionfo di Dori, published in Venice in 1592, in which all madrigals ended with "Viva la bella Dori". Secondly, in these English madrigals there are many cases of Italian madrigalisms, like word-painting. One of the most impressive examples is Weelkes' As Vesta was from Latmos descending.
Setting aside the last line there is no unity in this collection: all composers who were invited to contribute, followed their own ideas. So even the way the last line ist set, varies widely. In some madrigals it is fluent, gentle and smooth, in others declamatory, like a statement or conclusion. Most madrigals are pastoral in character, referring to shepherds, nymphs, the singing of birds and the beauty of flowers. Some have a very short 'story', like George Marson's The nymphs and shepherds danced. It is no wonder that most madrigals have a dance-like character. There are exceptions, like Fair Cytherea presents her doves by John Lisley, a composer whose identity has not been discovered yet.
Most composers may be little known to many listeners today, in the time this collection was published, the list of contributors was like a "Who's who" of the world of English church music. Most of the composers were organists or masters of the choristers at one of the important cathedrals in England, some were at the service of aristocratic families. The whole collection is an impressive token of the vitality of English musical life in the Elizabethan era.

The madrigals are performed here in the best possible way by the King's Singers. I have never been a great fan of this ensemble. When I heard it in the past, I was often irritated by the somewhat superficial performance of renaissance music. To me it was as if they sung everything in the way they used to sing close harmony. This is the first time I have heard them in their present constitution, and that is a great improvement in comparison with the past. The intonation and diction are immaculate, and they underline the differences in character between the individual pieces quite well. The balance between the voices is excellent. The upper voices never sound stressed, although some upper parts are quite high. Only the bass has problems with the lowest notes now and then.
My only serious objection to this interpretation is the modern English pronunciation. Enough is known about pronunciation in the Elizabethan era to allow recordings of vocal music of that period so sound more 'authentic' than is the case here.

Johan van Veen ( 2003)

Relevant links:

The King's Singers
em records

CD Reviews