Thursday 2 April 2020

Filling an important gap: the sacred music of Henry Aldrich, Oxford divine and contemporary of Purcell, performed on Convivium Records by the Cathedral Singers of Christ Church, Oxford

Henry Aldrich Sacred choral music; The Cathedral Singers of Christ Church, David Bannister, The Restoration Consort, James Morley Potter; Convivium
Henry Aldrich Sacred choral music; The Cathedral Singers of Christ Church, David Bannister, The Restoration Consort, James Morley Potter; Convivium
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 31 March 2020
Filling an important gap in catalogue, this disc introduces us to the music of Purcell's contemporary who was Dean of Oxford.

No, I hadn't heard of Henry Aldrich either. He was a late 17th century divine who was heavily involved in the campaign against King James II's attempts to re-Catholicise the University of Oxford, and in 1689 Aldrich became Dean of Christ Church where he was in place for 21 years. He also served as Vice-Chancellor of the University from 1692 to 1695. Aldrich seems to have been something of a polymath, a logician, a skilled architect, a musician and a composer; during the 1690s he was heavily involved in the cathedral's music programme and also sang in the choir. He also held regular musical gatherings in his rooms at college.

This new disc on Convivium Records focuses on Henry Aldrich's sacred music, with The Cathedral Singers of Christ Church, Oxford performing 13 of Aldrich's anthems and the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis from his Service in F major, conducted by James Morley Potter with David Bannister, organ. Also, on the disc is Aldrich's music for the 1682 Oxford Act, with the Restoration Consort (Conor Gricmanis & Alison Earll violins, Gavin Kibble viola da gamba).

Aldrich seems to have written mainly sacred music, for use in services at the cathedral. There are four complete services, seven full anthems and sixteen verse anthems, plus Aldrich's arrangements with English text of Latin motets by Palestrina, Carissimi, Byrd and Tallis.

On this disc we hear the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis from the Service in F, five verse anthems, six full anthems, plus music which Aldrich wrote for the 1682 Oxford Act. From 1672, this annual event at the Sheldonian often featured music by Aldrich, and we hear the ode Conveniunt doctae sorores and Aldrich's only surviving instrumental music, all from the 1682 Oxford Act.

The performers are The Cathedral Singers of Christ Church, a mixed-voice voluntary choir which performs services at the Cathedral at times when the main choir is on holiday or away. On this disc the group numbers some 27 singers (with a mixture of women and men on the alto line) with, judging by the photograph in the CD booklet, an admirably wide age range (here I must admit that I know one of the singers).

The texts for the anthems are taken mainly from the Psalms which Dr Dean Jobin-Bevans, an expert in the music of Aldrich from Lakehead University, Canada, believes shows Aldrich's conservative attitude towards church music. The presence of so much of his music for Cathedral services suggests the importance of regular services for Aldrich.

The disc is a result of Dean Jobin-Bevans's research as he discovered Aldrich's music during at Oxford in 2013, and apart from Be not wroth all the works on the disc are performed in Jobin-Bevans newly created editions. You can find out more about the project at the Christ Church website where there are selected works for download. If you are interested in exploring more, the text of a 2017 talk by Jobin-Bevans is also available on-line as a PDF.

Compared to the music of his great contemporary Purcell, Aldrich's music is comparatively straight forward. Aldrich was probably trained by Edward Lowe who was professor of music at Oxford until 1682 (he had been organist at Christ Church in the 1640s and took over as professor of music in 1661). As such, Aldrich's style probably represents a continuation of a relatively conservative musical tradition at the university. The struggles during the Interregnum, and then the fight against James II's attempts to re-Catholicise probably did not encourage novelty and experiment. Both in terms of his music and the cathedral services, Aldrich seems to have been devoted to re-establishing and regularising what had been the status quo.

This is all attractive, useful music and deserves wider currency with church choirs. The verse anthems all have significant solo parts with relatively discreet choruses, and the soloists here are all taken from the choir (soprano Lucinda Cox, tenor Benjamin Durrant, bass Thomas Lowen). They are all far more than admirable and each sings Aldrich's music with a confident sense of style and projections of the words. The choir itself grasps the opportunities when Aldrich gives them and the results are highly creditable and never less than pleasing and often far more so. Occasionally the performances feel a little constrained, and you sense that the singers were a somewhat on best behaviour and that this music might have benefited from them letting go a bit more.

For the two canticles from the Service in F, Aldrich interweaves chorus and solos (Laura Corner, Lucinda Cox, Susan Beardmore, Anne Marie Lo, Benjamin Durrant, Thomas Lowen) rather more than in the Verse Anthems. The Magnificat is over six minutes long, so is rather too long for the average service. Aldrich's Be thou wroth is completely fascinating, it is not just an English version of Byrd's Civitas sancti tui, it is much more a re-composition and evidently there around 35 of these re-compositions.

Aldrich's ode Conveniunt doctae sorores (The learned sisters [Muses] assemble) is one of a pair of choruses which Aldrich composed for the 1682 Act. Unlike the music for services, this is accompanied by both organ and instruments (two violins and viola da gamba), with a substantial instrumental prelude before the main work, the ode is far more large scale than anything else on the disc. The soloists here are used almost like a semi-chorus, and the addition of separate instrumental lines brings out a greater element of interest in Aldrich's writing. The final pieces from the Oxford Act are a suite of five instrumental movements, short and characterful.

This disc fills an important gap, not only by introducing us to the music of Henry Aldrich but by fleshing out the musical life of a major cathedral away from the influence of the Chapel Royal. Aldrich's influence was not just musical, but the works on the disc help provide a stronger picture, whilst the performances revivify his music with great style. Whilst the music is relatively conservative it lacks neither imagination nor energy, and perhaps this very directness can be appealing particularly to choirs looking for interesting repertoire to perform.

Henry Aldrich (1648-1710) - O give thanks
Henry Aldrich - The Lord is King
Henry Aldrich - All people that on earth do dwell
Henry Aldrich - O God, thou art my God
Henry Aldrich - God is our hope and strength
Henry Aldrich - O Lord our Governor
Henry Aldrich - Sing unto the Lord, O ye saints
Henry Aldrich - Magnificat & Nunc Dimittis from Service in F major
Henry Aldrich - O sing unto the Lord
Henry Aldrich - O praise the Lord, all ye heathen
Henry Aldrich - I will love thee, O Lord
Henry Aldrich - Out of the deep
Henry Aldrich - Give ear, O Lord
Henry Aldrich, after Byrd - Be not wroth
Henry Aldrich  - Music for the Oxford Act 1682
The Cathedral Singers of Christ Church, Oxford
The Restoration Consort
David Bannister (organ)
James Morley Potter (director)
Recorded Merton College Chapel, University of Oxford, 28-30 December 2018

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