Three English Recordings from Signum

Program: #22-41   Air Date: Oct 10, 2022

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The Oxford Psalms, Naked Byrd Part 2, and the latest from the Tenebrae Ensemble, "When Sleep Comes."

I. The Oxford Psalms: Anthems for Three Men and a Band from 17th Century England (Charivari Agreeable/Kah-Ming Ng). Signum CD SIGCD093.

The Oxford PsalmsThe Oxford PsalmsThe Oxford Psalms

From Music Web International: The ensemble Charivari Agréable is one of many groups in the early music scene but it stands out from the crowd. A magazine labelled it "one of the most original and versatile groups on the Early Music scene today". This disc testifies to that once more. It pays attention to an aspect of English music of the 17th century which has been almost completely overlooked. Its importance is twofold: firstly it presents religious repertoire written for domestic use, whereas most recordings concentrate on music which was to be performed in cathedrals or at court. Secondly it shows that the Italian style made an earlier entrance in England than many think. The Book of Psalms has always played an important role in the Christian Church. Whereas in the Middle Ages non-biblical texts were frequently used in the liturgy it was the Reformation which restored the predominance of the Psalms. As the Reformers believed that not only professional singers should sing in church but also the congregation, poets and composers collaborated in creating metrical psalms in the vernacular. These could be sung by common believers. The best-known example is the Huguenot Psalter which came into existence in the late 16th century. In England several collections of metrical Psalms were published from the end of the 16th century onwards. The present disc contains a number of compositions on Psalm texts, some of which are also metrical. The title is explained by Kah-Ming Ng in the booklet: "Most of the composers have some connection with Oxford, be it academic, professional, or, more tenuously, fraternal." It focuses on "sacred songs and non-liturgical anthems for domestic consumption, 'fitt for private Chappels or other private meetings', to cite a rubric from William Child's only publication 'The First Set of Psalmes of III Voyces' (1639)". Religious music specifically written for domestic use is a phenomenon which wasn't restricted to England: in Germany a large amount of this kind of music was written, in particular under the influence of Pietism. As far as the repertoire on this disc is concerned, the interesting thing is that here we find early influences of the modern Italian style which were largely absent in repertoire written for cathedrals or in secular music. Matthew Locke wasn't the only one who had a rather negative view on Italian - or any non-English - music as this quotation shows: "I never yet saw any foreign composition worthy an English man's transcribing." Therefore it is quite remarkable that William Child, one of the English composers of the 17th century who is now paid little attention, wrote that his psalms were "newly composed after the Italian way". And the pieces performed here show that he mastered that style quite well. It is a shame that only a small proportion of his collection is performed here. But the rest of the disc is equally interesting, for instance the compositions of William Lawes. They come from his collection 'Psalmes for 1, 2 and 3 partes, to the comon tunes'. The reference to "common tunes" has given rise to the suggestion that these psalms could have been sung in church, but there is no firm evidence to support this. The fact is that alongside free composed passages for solo voices Lawes also gives a simple melody, which seems meant to be sung by a congregation, and is performed here with the three voices singing unisono. The Italian influence, which even appears in Locke's music, is reflected in three things: firstly the three-part texture, in the way of the Italian trio-sonata, which results in settings for three voices, mostly alto, tenor and bass; secondly the addition of a basso continuo part; and thirdly the declamatory character of the vocal parts. Of course, Henry Purcell is the best-known representative of the true baroque style in England in the 17th century. He composed a number of devotional songs, two of which are recorded here. Neither these nor the piece by the hardly known George Jeffreys set metrical texts. The latest piece on this disc is by Jeremiah Clarke, who was a highly gifted composer who could have had a great career if he hadn't had a melancholic nature which finally led him to commit suicide. His hymn 'Blest be those sweet Regions' was written as he was sworn in - together with William Croft - as Gentleman-Extraordinary of the Chapel Royal. This hymn "is a veritable cantata in miniature, featuring an aria-like refrain, around which are woven arioso passages, presaging the arrival of Handel's Italianate idiom". Listening to the programme on this disc one gets a fairly good impression of how the Italian style gradually gained ground in a part of composing and music-making which took place more or less out of the limelight, and as a result is largely overlooked in our own time. It is the great virtue of this recording that this chapter in English music history is saved from oblivion. I am happy to add that the performers give splendid interpretations of this repertoire. There were times when I would have liked a little less vibrato, in particular from Simon Beston, but on the whole I thoroughly enjoyed the performances of both singers and players. In the unisono passages the three voices blend very well. All singers deliver the texts in true declamatory style, without exaggeration. They are well aware of the fact that this music was written for domestic use, which makes a display of virtuosity inappropriate. It was a good decision to use a tenor for the upper (alto) part, and Rodrigo Del Pozo has exactly the right type of voice for this. Various instrumental items are interspersed amongst the rest. Again they are rather uncommon pieces, performed here with imagination by the instrumentalists of the ensemble. I strongly recommend this disc, which is of far more than historical importance; it also has great musical value. I hope that this area of repertoire is going to be explored more extensively in the near future. Johan van Veen

1. The Lamentation: O Lord, in thee William Lawes

2. Psalm L1/2: Cast me not, Lord William Lawes 

3. In the beginning, O Lord Matthew Locke

4. Blest be those sweet Regions Jeremiah Clarke 

5. Miserere, from Parthenia in-violata Anonymous 

6. Psalm XVIII/1: O God my strength and fortitude William Lawes

7. Psalm VI: Lord, in thy wrath William Lawes

8. As on Euphrates? shady banks John Blow 

9. A Ground for ye Harpsichord Anonymous/Christopher Simpson, arr KMN 

10. The First Set of Psalmes of III Voyces (Extracts) William Child

11. Since God so tender Henry Purcell 

12. Divisions in F Frances Withy

13. Praise the Lord, O my soule George Jeffreys 

14. Blessed is he that considerith the poor Henry Purcell 

15. Voluntary Albertus Bryne 

16. Let god arise Matthew Locke 

17. The humble suite of a sinner: O Lord, of whom
 William Lawes

18. Gloria Patri et Filio William Lawes


II. Naked Byrd Two (Armonico Consort/Christopher Monks). Signum CD SIGCD235.

Naked Byrd Two was recorded in the real tennis court in the village of Moreton Morrell, Warwickshire – a building with a most amazing acoustic – in February 2010 and, along with the earlier album Naked Byrd, completes the recording of a concert  which has fast become the calling card of Armonico Consort. It is an indulgence of what may arguably be described as some of the greatest choral music ever written.

From Music Web International: This is the second CD to be inspired by Armonico Consort’s ‘Naked Byrd’ concert programme, which, to quote the Signum publicity material, ‘features music by Tavener, Purcell, Barber and Byrd, composers who wore their hearts on their sleeves, and whose art saw their emotions laid bare, in an atmospheric concert where magical musical moments are intertwined with sublime passages of plainchant and violin improvisation’ It’s similar in manner to Volume 1 which I reviewed in May 2010 – see review. 

Let me say at once that, having cut though the publicity hype, I found the whole of this programme as beautiful and as excellently sung as the first. It also introduces the listener to some unfamiliar music, but let me also get two small complaints out of the way. The first is that 53 minutes is rather short value for a full-price CD, however good.

Secondly, as was the case with Volume 1, someone picking up the CD in a browser might buy it on impulse under the impression that the music is all or mostly by Byrd, when, in fact, there is only one 4-minute item by him. I’m afraid that the titles of Naked Byrd 1 and 2 do rather beg the question.

What we do have more than compensates – a very wide-ranging and eclectic programme of some of the most beautiful music ever composed, from the opening Salve Regina, attributed to the 11th-century composer Hermannus Contractus, via the two works by the wonderful Abbess Hildegard, to whose music I could listen all night, through the renaissance and baroque, Samuel Barber’s own arrangement of his Adagio and two by-now familiar John Tavener works, to three new compositions here receiving their first outings.

One of these new works is a re-working of an old one by the Consort’s artistic director Christopher Monks, revisiting the same piece from Thomas Tallis’s English settings in Archbishop Parker’s Psalter which Vaughan Williams employed for his Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. The result is not quite as magical as that VW composition, partly because Monks stays closer to the original – Tallis was stuck with setting some fairly banal English words and had to set them in a fairly limited manner, unable to make settings of English his own in quite the same way that his younger contemporary Byrd was able to do. Nevertheless, the Phrygian mode of the original is haunting and Monks’ reworking is impressive. I don’t always react favourably to this kind of reinterpretation of earlier music – Jan Garbarek’s realisations on ECM, Officum Novum* and its predecessors, leave me feeling profoundly depressed – but I found Kelly McCusker’s violin weaving around Anna Sanderson’s voice here very moving. As with most of the music here, both ancient and modern, from the soaring opening Salve Regina onwards, the epithet ‘ethereal’ is highly appropriate.

Even if you have the complete Byrd four-part Mass from which the Agnus Dei (tr.12) is excerpted or the complete Victoria Requiem whence Versa est (tr.10) is derived, you shouldn’t feel short-changed. You may, however, note that, as on Volume 1, slower tempi than usual are adopted for these and for most of the medieval and renaissance pieces, even by comparison with the Tallis Scholars, themselves no speed merchants. 

1. Salve Regina Hermann Contractus 

2. The Spirit of Tallis Thomas Tallis, arr. Christopher Monks 

3. Agnus Dei (from Adagio for Strings) Samuel Barber

4. Funeral Ikos John Tavener

5. Hear my Prayer, O Lord Henry Purcell

6. Spiritus Sanctus Vivificans Hildegard of Bingen

7. Never Seek to Tell Thy Love Jonathan Roberts

8. Crucifixus Antonio Lotti

9. O Virtus Sapientiae Hildegard of Bingen

10. Versa Est (Requiem) Tomas Luis de Victoria

11. Strengthen ye the weak hands David Buckley

12. Agnus Dei from 4 part mass William Byrd

13. The Lamb John Tavener


III. When Sleep Comes (Tenebrae/Christian Forshaw, saxophone/Nigel Short). Signum SIGCD708.

When Sleep Comes Product Image
From Music Web International: 

This isn’t quite a concept album, and it certainly isn’t designed to make you nod off: instead it’s a series of deeply beautiful meditations, some of which are on nocturnal themes, blending voice and saxophone sensationally lovely ways to create a think of beauty.

I hadn’t come across composer and saxophonist Christian Forshaw before, but I really liked what I heard of him here, be that in his compositions, his arrangements or his playing. Tenebrae and Nigel Short are, of course, a known quantity, and a fantastic one at that. The booklet doesn’t specify how many singers they used for this recording, but it doesn’t sound like many, and a photo of what (I assume) was one of the recording sessions suggests it’s only about half a dozen.

The disc is divided between original music by Forshaw and his arrangements of music by other composers. The original music is solid, direct and very listenable-to: his setting of the In Paradisum from the service of committal sets the text with plainsong directness, while the soprano sounds like an additional member of chorus rather than an added spiritual presence. In fact, the delight of much of the disc is that it’s sometimes impossible to tell whether you’re listening to the saxophone or a soprano voice. That’s also delightfully the case in his evening chant and in his beautifully simple setting of Psalm 121. A line he sets in Renouncement gives the disc its title, though it’s the track I enjoyed least, perhaps because of its complexity: elsewhere the real appeal of the disc is its simplicity, something Forshaw restores in his silky, transluscent setting of the evening prayer Te lucis ante terminum.

In the music by other composers, it’s difficult to ignore the ghost of Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble in their famous (and famously successful) Officium of 1994. But while there are undeniable echoes to and fro, Tenebrae and Forshaw put their own mark on what they do. Gibbon’s famous Drop, drop slow tears is an utterly delectable way to begin the disc. Gentle vocalises begin and end the anthem as the saxophone soars above them, and the text itself is enunciated with crystalline clarity, close up to the microphone, creating a spellbinding atmosphere of focus and concentration, behind which the saxophone spirals gently skywards. Here, and frequently elsewhere, the saxophone feels like a heavenly body connecting we humans with the divine, spiralling upwards like an angel or a dove to bring the voices of the choir closer to those of God himself. You’ll hear this effect most powerfully in the earliest track on the disc, Hildegard of Bingen’s O vos imitatores, but it happens again and again. In Tallis’ O Nata Lux the saxophone plays a very minor role in the text-setting, but adds palpable colour, and there is a gentle shading of beauty to the great hymn Abide with me.

There are several tracks on this disc, such as in Tallis’ Sancte Deus or Victoria’s Reproaches, where the saxophone doesn’t play at all. That at least means that Tenebrae are left along to sing with the beauteous, unadulterated transparency for which they have justifiably become world famous, but it made me wonder why they’d included those tracks when the whole point of the disc is to hear the blend with the saxophone.

That’s what you’ll come back to this disc for. This is one I think I’ll be dipping into again and again, and not just on sleepless nights.

Simon Thompson

1. Drop, drop slow tears Orlando Gibbons
2. In paradisum Christian Forshaw
3. O vos imitatores Hildegard von Bingen arr. N. Short
4. Te lucis ante terminum Chant arr. C. Forshaw
5. Sancte Deus Thomas Tallis
6. Psalm 121 Chant arr. C. Forshaw
7. O nata lux Thomas Tallis arr. Christian Forshaw
8. Renouncement Christian Forshaw
9. Reproaches Tomås Luis de Victoria
10. Night Prayer Owain Park
11. Te lucis ante terminum Thomas Tallis arr. C. Forshaw
12. Abide with me Henry F. Lyte & William H. Monk, arr. C. Forshaw
13. Lamentations Antoine Brumel

Composer Info

William Lawes, Matthew Locke, Jeremiah Clarke, John Blow, Christopher Simpson, William Child, Henry Purcell, Frances Withy, George Jeffreys, Albertus Bryne, Hermann Contractus, Samuel Barber, John Tavener, Hildegard of Bingen, Jonathan Roberts, Antonio Lotti, Christopher Monks, Tomas Luis de Victoria, David Buckley, William Byrd, Orlando Gibbons, Christian Forshaw, Thomas Tallis, Owain Park, Henry F. Lyte , William H. Monk, Antoine Brumel

CD Info

Signum CD SIGCD093, Signum CD SIGCD235, Signum SIGCD708