Friday 14 April 2017

Virgin and Child: Owen Rees and Contrapunctus continue their exploration of the Baldwin part-books

Virgin and Child - Contrapunctus - Signum Classics
Tallis, Taverner, White, Sheppard, Fayrfax; Contrapunctus, Owen Rees; Signum Classics
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Mar 29 2017
Star rating: 5.0

Superb musicianship in this survey of the flowering of Tudor polyphony

This disc Virgin and Child is the second exploring the music of the Baldwin Part Books from Owen Rees and Contrapunctus on Signum Classics. Here we have a selection of large-scale motets referencing devotion to the Virgin with Thomas Tallis' Gaude gloriosa Dei mater, Magnificat and Videte miraculum, John Taverner's Mater Christi, Robert White's Tota pulchra es, and Regina Coeli, Robert Fayrfax's Ave Dei Patris filia and John Sheppard's Verbum caro.

John Baldwin (1560-1615) was a singer at St George's Chapel, Windsor and then at the Chapel Royal where he sang at the funerals of Elizabeth I and Prince Henry, and the coronation of James I. he was also a composer and a copyist working on books such as My Ladye Nevells Booke. The set of part-books which he copied (and owned) included printed material so that in addition to the 160 plus pieces in manuscript, the contents of William Byrd and Thomas Tallis's Cantiones Sacrae of 1575 is bound up as well, with Baldwin selecting the manuscript motets so that there are no duplications. The manuscript selection is very wide ranging with polyphonic settings of hymns and responds, large-scale Marian antiphons, canticles, a mass, lamentations and motets. There is also untexted consort music for between three and six parts. In all there are 60 pieces known only from the Baldwin Part Books, though as the tenor part is missing some work needs to be done.

The Baldwin Part-Books
The Baldwin Part-Books
On this disc Owen Rees' selection concentrates on Marian music which is quite wide in range varying from Baldwin's contemporaries to earlier composers such as Taverner and Robert Fayrfax. The manuscript is an important source for music of this period, and Tallis' Magnificat survives only in the Baldwin part-books and is presented in a new reconstruction by Owen Rees. But the selection is not just important for the rarities, and collections give us an idea of taste too so that we can see the sort of thing that Baldwin was singing and thought worth collecting for himself.

Rees uses a flexible ensemble which generally varies between eight and 11 singers, singing with a lovely fluency and clarity. The sopranos, particularly in the high soprano lines, have a beautiful elegance and focus to them, keeping the sound light. The ensemble is notable for the blend, but there is a clear ebb and flow to the voices as the textures change and different lines become prominent. The singers perform with a lovely sense of line, and beautiful poise. Occasionally I wonder what the pieces would sound like with a bigger ensemble, but the musicianship of the singers is such that you are never disappointed. This is superb stuff.

The booklet includes an admirable essay by Rees which provides background for all the pieces on the disc, but what he does not cover is why we should be interested in the Baldwin part-books in the first place. Perhaps he thinks it is obvious, but it seems to be worth stating.

This disc is a feast for lovers of Tudor polyphony and thanks to John Baldwin's taste for older music as well as new, we have a lovely range of styles in stunning performances.

Thomas Tallis (1505-1585) - Gaude gloriosa Dei mater
John Taverner (1490-1545) - Mater Christi
Robert White (1538-1574) - Tota pulchra es
Thomas Tallis - Magnificat
Thomas Tallis - Videte Miraculum
Robert White - Regina Coeli
Robert Fayrfax (1464-1521) - Ave Dei Patris filia
John Sheppard (1515 -1585)
Owen Rees (conductor)
Recorded in the church of St Michael and All Angels, Oxford, 19-21 April 2016
Available from Amazon.

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