MusicWeb on Tune thy Musicke
John Quinn, MusicWeb International (April 2012)
Several of the vocal works on this programme – Amner’s O ye little flock and When David heard by Tomkins, for example – have been in the repertoire of church choirs for a long time. However, Matthew O’Donovan contends in his very interesting booklet note that the music presented here was written for domestic use rather than to be heard during church services. He maintains that there was a significant amount of domestic music-making in sixteenth-century England and that religious music of the kind performed here was frequently used in the context of private or domestic devotion. And it’s clear that we’re not just talking about aristocratic households in this context but also music-making among the middle classes. O’Donovan’s argument is persuasive and obviously well researched. The only point I’d make, while not challenging his thesis for a second, is that a good deal of the music we hear in this recital would have required some pretty expert executants.
One such example is John Browne’s Jesu, mercy, how may this be? which may well be the earliest music on the programme. As Matthew O’Donovan says, there’s certainly a directness of communication about this piece, not least in the fourth of the five stanzas, which is relatively dramatic – at least as Stile Antico render it. What is noticeable, however, is the quite florid style of writing which involves quite a lot of ornamentation of the vocal lines. This music seems much closer to the world of the Eton Choirbook than to private chapels and the domestic environment. The members of Stile Antico give a very fine performance of it, one that is all the more remarkable when one remembers that this group performs without a conductor.
In complete contrast the little piece by Tallis shows him at his most simple and direct. Campion’s Never weather-beaten sail, a setting of his own words – set memorably by Parry some three centuries later as one of his Songs of Farewell – is also musically fairly straightforward, owing much, as O’Donovan observes, to metrical psalmody. It’s interesting that in this piece the words are rather richer in expression than the music.
In general the pieces are quite modest in scale but this doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re musically modest. Robert Ramsey, in his How are the mighty fall’n, and Thomas Tomkins, in When David heard, both choose words from the Second Book of Samuel. Ramsey’s piece gives expression to a patrician grief and his short anthem is full of feeling. So too is the Tomkins piece, perhaps the best-known music on the disc, which conveys an abundance of dignified but deep feeling. The performances of both pieces are beautifully judged and I found it was very rewarding to fast-forward the CD and hear one after the other.
John Amner’s delightful little verse anthem for Christmas, O ye little flock is another example of direct musical communication. The music exudes a beguiling innocence – certainly that’s the case in this performance. Rather more elaborate is See, see, the Word is incarnate by Gibbons but even here the composer connects directly through what is basically simple expression. Musical artifice is not allowed to impede devotion, rather the music is consciously fashioned so as to aid devotion, which is not to imply that the music is unsophisticated.
In these two pieces Stile Antico are joined by the viol consort, Fretwork. The viols also accompany tenor Benedict Hymas in the one solo vocal item, Byrd’s Why do I use my paper, ink and pen? which he sings very well. Fretwork also perform by themselves in the three In nomines.
Collectors who have acquired previous releases by Stile Antico won’t be at all surprised to learn that the standard of performance is extremely high. The homogeneity and blend of the group is flawless and solos or duets – in the Gibbons, particularly – are all well taken. Fretwork, of course, is well known as one of the premier viol ensembles and their contribution to the success of the disc is equally significant. Incidentally, followers of Fretwork may wish to know that this was the very last recording made with them by one of their founder members, Richard Campbell, just a matter of weeks before his untimely death last year.
This beautifully packaged and carefully documented release offers a most interesting perspective on the sacred vocal music of the period and exemplary performances. The recordings, which I listened to as a conventional CD, are clear and present with just the right amount of ambience around the musicians.