Program: #20-23 Air Date: May 25, 2020
The Chapel Royal choir sings Thomas Tomkins, a French ensemble gives us the devotional anthems of Purcell, and the rarely-heard sacred music of Henry Aldrich.
I. O Give Thanks unto the Lord: Choral Works by Thomas Tomkins (The Choir of HM Chapel Royal, Hampton Court Palace/Carl Jackson). Resonus CD RES10253.
This judicious selection is expertly discussed by one of the Gentlemen, Christian Goursaud (a Research Fellow at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire), in the excellent accompanying booklet. Even the items which have already been recorded are well chosen: most have rarely been recorded previously, and all are of top quality even by Tomkins’s lofty standards. The major source of material for this album is Musica Deo sacra [MDS], the posthumous compilation of his Anglican music published by son Nathaniel in 1668. Some pieces on this recording have been selected from those that survive only in manuscript, and in most cases have had to be editorially reconstructed. One such is the Seventh Service, a verse Service that, notwithstanding its numbering, undoubtedly dates from early in the composer’s career: five of Tomkins’s Services were published and numbered accordingly in MDS so this and its predecessor, both significantly influenced by Tomkins’s “much-reverenced Master” Byrd, have had to be tacked onto the end of the printed sequence as Sixth and Seventh. (The Sixth Service, probably another early work, has been recorded by the Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge on Chandos CHAN 0804.) Goursaud rightly draws attention to those occasions when Byrd’s influence can be discerned in the works on display here, but this should not imply (and indeed Goursaud does not do so) that Tomkins’s music is in any way derivative or unoriginal. On the contrary, even when he uses explicit word-painting in passages such as “and why go I so heavily” in Give sentence with me, such is his ability that the passages in question sound fresh and delightful. He can also produce some joltingly fine phrases, such as the music to which he sets the abstract but alliterative text “and the strength of sin is the law” in Death is swallowed up, a distinguished verse anthem which is one of those omitted from MDS; it also contains one of Tomkins’s fine sequences at “through our Lord Jesus Christ”, as also does the sublime sacred song for the full choir Turn unto the Lord, probably the most familiar piece on the disc, at the words “His mercy is everlasting”. Similarly worthy of mention is “from the great offence” in Who can tell how oft he offendeth, not least for the powerful delivery first by the countertenor soloist Karl Gietzmann, then by the whole choir when they repeat these words after the soloist’s verse. Tomkins’s scoring is always excellent, as for instance his deployment of high voices in the Magnificat of the Seventh Service. The anthem The heavens declare sung by the Gentlemen is the other work that is familiar on disc, and this recording has a good claim to be the finest yet. Finally, for structure it would be hard to beat Tomkins’s narrative of Doubting Thomas in Jesus came when the doors were shut, another of the verse anthems excluded from MDS, which tells the story briskly yet expressively, and knows when to stop.
Turning to the pieces for keyboard, although Rufus Froude is credited as the organist on this disc, it is Carl Jackson who places all Byrdbrains in his debt by being the first to observe, according to Christian Goursaud’s notes, “that the head motif in A Fantasy (Musica Britannica vol. 5, no 22) appears to be a quotation from Byrd’s motet Ne irascaris Domine”: in fact the opening in the uppermost part of the “secunda pars” Civitas sancti tui. Also present are Gloria tibi Trinitas (MB 5/7) which is in fact an In nomine (explained in the booklet), and the disc concludes with a Voluntary (MB 5/30) which is built around a theme thought by many to be a typically English cadential phrase, but in fact to be heard inter alia in Brumel’s Lamentations from around 1500, which I shall be reviewing in EMR imminently.
I have already complimented the selection of material on this disc, and the performances are all that one could desire. The trebles are responsive and confident, the soloists from among them have pleasant voices with good diction, and the Gentlemen all have voices well suited to this repertory; I hope his capable colleagues will excuse me if I pick out the countertenor Hamish McLaren for his contribution to the verse anthem Jesus came when the doors were shut. Rufus Frowde plays his accompaniments and solos idiomatically, and Carl Jackson interprets the texts with decorous sensitivity, unerringly choosing the ideal tempo for each piece. With its excellent repertory, several premieres and consistently fine performances, this recording is a most important and distinguished addition to the Tomkins discography.
II. Henry Aldrich: Sacred Choral Music (Cathedral Singers of Christ Church, Oxford/Restoration Consort/James Morley Potter). Convivium CD CR052.
On April 4, 1689 Aldrich was installed as the Dean of Christ Church, succeeding John Massey, a Catholic. Massey, who three years earlier had been appointed Dean by James II, was forced to make an abrupt departure from Oxford the previous November due to the escalation of anti-Catholic tensions at Oxford.
As a canon at Christ Church, Aldrich had actively worked to oppose James II’s attempts to Catholicise Oxford.
In addition to his three years as the Vice-Chancellor of the University from 1692 to 1695, and the twenty-one years served as Dean, Aldrich distinguished himself as a logician, skilled architect, competent musician, and composer of predominantly sacred music used in cathedral services at Christ Church. During the 1690s, he was closely involved with the cathedral music programme both as a singing man and as a composer. He was also known to hold regular musical gatherings in his rooms at college where the incentive for an on-time arrival for rehearsals was the service of drinks following the meeting.
Aldrich died in London on 14 December 1710 after a brief illness, and his body was brought back to Oxford on 22 December and interred in the north choir aisle of Christ Church Cathedral.
02: The Lord is King - Henry Aldrich
03: All people that on earth do dwell - Henry Aldrich
04: O God, thou art my God - Henry Aldrich
05: God is our hope and strength - Henry Aldrich
06: O Lord our Governor - Henry Aldrich
07: Sing unto the Lord, O ye saints - Henry Aldrich
08: Magnificat; Service in F major - Henry Aldrich
09: Nunc dimittis; Service in F major - Henry Aldrich
10: O sing unto the Lord - Henry Aldrich
11: O praise the Lord, all ye heathen - Henry Aldrich
12: I will love thee, O Lord - Henry Aldrich
13: Out of the deep - Henry Aldrich
14: Give ear, O Lord - Henry Aldrich
15: Be not wroth - Henry Aldrich
16: Conveniunt doctae sorores; Music for the Oxford Act 1682 - Henry Aldrich
17: Instrumental Suite: Opening; Music for the Oxford Act 1682 - Henry Aldrich
18: Instrumental Suite: Gavot; Music for the Oxford Act 1682 - Henry Aldrich
19: Instrumental Suite: Menuet; Music for the Oxford Act 1682 - Henry Aldrich
20: Instrumental Suite: Lancashire Hornpipe; Music for the Oxford Act 1682 - Henry Aldrich
21: Instrumental Suite: Brouch; Music for the Oxford Act 1682 - Henry Aldrich
III. Purcell: Devotional Songs & Anthems (La Rêveuse/Benjamin Perrot & Florence Bolton). Mirare CD MIR 283.
There were several factors which made the musical climate change. Firstly, in 1660 the monarchy was restored and Charles II who was crowned King that year "had an utter detestation of Fancys", as the theorist Roger North wrote. He preferred the dances he had heard during his exile in France. This resulted in a change of repertoire played at his court and written by composers associated with it. The second factor was an influx of performing musicians and composers from overseas, such as the violinists Thomas Baltzar from Germany, Nicola Matteis from Italy, and the French recorder virtuoso Jacques Paisible who also introduced the oboe.
Despite his short life Henry Purcell played a key role in the change from the stile antico to the stile nuovo. He was rooted in the contrapuntal tradition and during his formative years he copied and studied music of previous generations, going back as far as the 16th century. At the same time he included French and Italian influences in his compositions. In his instrumental music - for instance overtures to his anthems and his music for the stage - he paid tribute to the French style. In his vocal music the declamatory style which was a feature of Italian music is clearly discernible. That comes to the fore in the devotional songs which the ensemble La Rêveuse has recorded.
It is not quite clear what may have been Purcell's motivation to compose these songs. They were not intended for liturgical use: for his anthems Purcell used only texts from the Bible or from the Book of Common Prayer. The present disc includes three specimens of the latter genre. Blessed is he that considereth the poor is a setting of the first three verses from Psalm 41. The first eight verses from Psalm 122 are set in I was glad. Lord, not to us is a setting of the opening verse of Psalm 115. These anthems fit well into the programme because stylistically they are not fundamentally different from the devotional songs.
Such songs are settings of free texts - although sometimes based on biblical texts - by poets from Purcell's own time or from the past. Among the former is John Patrick who wrote the text of at least nine of Purcell's devotional songs, among them Since God so tender a regard which is based on Psalm 116, and Plung'd in the confines of despair, after Psalm 130. The latter is a specimen of the many pieces of a rather gloomy character which constitute a substantial part of Purcell's devotional songs. Most of them are penitential and often turn "from contemplating man's sin to seeking or celebrating God's mercy" (Bruce Wood). This explains why Purcell frequently uses chromaticism and dissonants in his settings. He also makes use of eloquent musical figures to depict a text. Some striking examples can be found in With sick and famish'd eyes: the second stanza closes with the words: "Lord, I fall, yet call". On the word "fall" Purcell writes a deeply descending line, followed by a short ascending figure on "yet call". The opposite happens at the end of the piece: "[Heal] my troubled breast, which cries, which dies". The author of this text is George Herbert, an example of an author from the early 17th century (1593-1633). He is considered one of the so-called metaphysical poets who made frequent use of metaphors.
A contemporary of his was George Sandys; O, I'm sick of life is a paraphrase of Job 10 and taken from his Paraphrase upon the Psalms and Hymns dispersed throughout the Old and New Testaments. The closing episode of Purcell's setting is particularly expressive. Two poets from later times are Thomas Flatman (1635-1688), who wrote the text of When on my sick bed I languish - his poem is called A Thought of Death - and John Norris (1657-1712), the author of How long, great God.
The three soloists really make the most of these songs and anthems. Jeffrey Thompson is simply brilliant in With sick and famish'd eyes. The three together deliver highly expressive interpretations of the gloomy songs but also make a good impression in the pieces of a more uplifting nature. These songs are technically demanding, partly due to their declamatory character. It is understandable that it is assumed that these songs were intended for professional singers. In these songs and anthems Purcell mixes English tradition and Italian modernity.
The ensemble has added three instrumental pieces by Godfrey Finger. He was a professional gambist of Moravian birth (his original Christian name was Gottfried) who settled in London in the 1680s. He was appointed as a member of the royal chapel, but lost that job with the Glorious Revolution as King James had to leave the country for France. In the ensuing years Finger played as a freelance musician and composed music for the stage. He was one of the contestants in the competition which took place in 1700 in which composers were invited to set a libretto by William Congreve, The Judgement of Paris. Four composers took part, and Finger landed at fourth place. He considered that this was down to the partiality of the judges and later Charles Burney seemed to share his view as he called him "the best musician perhaps among the candidates". The disappointment led him to leave the country in 1701 and never to return. His pieces played here bear witness to the instrumental virtuosity which was introduced in England from the continent. The choice of two divisions is particularly appropriate as this was a popular form in England and 'divisions on a ground' frequently appear in Purcell's oeuvre. The latter also wrote instrumental sonatas which he considered superior to "the levity and balladry of our neighbours", as he wrote in the preface to his Sonatas of Three Parts (1683), referring to the French. The Sonata IV by Finger is selected here because "with its mixture of Corellian and German traits, it reveals that Finger was as familiar as Purcell with the different European styles". Florence Bolton and her colleagues deliver engaging performances of these pieces.
This is a most fascinating and highly impressive disc which sheds light on a less familiar part of Purcell's oeuvre. The character and quality of the music and the outstanding performances make this disc a winner in every respect.
Johan van Veen
Devotional songs and anthems
Hear me, O Lord, the great support (Z 133), devotional song [6:38]
O, I'm sick of life (Z 140), devotional song [5:58]
Since God so tender a regard (Z 143), devotional song [4:59]
Sonata IV in d minor (RI-148) [8:38]
Plung'd in the confines of despair (Z 142), devotional song [5:30]
Blessed is he that considereth the poor (Z 7), anthem [5:27]
The Aspiration: How long, great God (Z 189), devotional song [3:53]
Division No. 8 in G [4:01]
When on my sick bed I languish (Z 144), devotional song [6:05]
With sick and famish'd eyes (Z 200), devotional song [6:44]
Division in g minor (RI-140) [3:59]
I was glad (Z 19), anthem [5:22]
Lord, not unto us (Z 137), anthem [2:35]
Thomas Tomkins (1572-1656), Henry Aldrich (1648-1710), Henry Purcel (1659 - 1695), Godfrey FINGER (c.1655-1730)
Resonus CD RES10253, Convivium CD CR052, Mirare CD MIR 283