Tuesday 30 June 2020

The English Pre-Restoration Verse Anthem: Fretwork & the Magdalena Consort continue their exploration of these intimate works for voices and viols on Signum Classics

In Chains of Gold, volume 2 - Byrd, Bull, Cosyn, Hooper, Mundy; Magdalena Consort, Fretwork, His Majestys Sagbutts & Cornetts, William Hunt
In Chains of Gold, volume 2
- Byrd, Bull, Cosyn, Hooper, Mundy; Magdalena Consort, Fretwork, His Majestys Sagbutts & Cornetts, William Hunt; Signum

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 29 June 2020 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A further exploration of English verse anthems, with intimate, finely crafted performances which aim to recapture the spirit of the originals

This disc, In Chains of Gold, represents volume two of Signum Classics valuable survey of the English Pre-Restoration Verse Anthem, featuring the Magdalena Consort (director Peter Harvey), Fretwork, His Majestys Sagbutts & Cornetts, artistic director William Hunt. Having devoted volume one to the complete consort anthems of Orlando Gibbons, this new volume looks at his great contemporary William Byrd, along with music by John Bull, Benjamin Cosyn, Edmund Hooper and John Mundy.

The sound-world that the performances aim to create is as close as possible to what we know about Elizabethan performance of these intimate works for voices and viols. The works are performed in the original keys at a pitch of A466 (a semi-tone higher than modern pitch), with a set of small English viols re-strung to the high pitch especially for the project, a strikingly characterful reconstructed Tudor organ (which can be heard in solo pieces) and a vocal consort which uses high tenors rather than falsettists. Perhaps, as important, as any of these, is the way that the performances keep the required intimacy; viols are not excessively loud instruments and these works were often intended for domestic use, though we know them now from their re-purposing by church choirs. The survival of this music is patchy, and for some pieces the original instrumental accompaniments have had to be re-constructed.

The disc opens with a trio of domestic works by William Byrd, each a setting of the opening verse of one of the seven penitential psalms, Hear my prayer, O Lord; O Lord, rebuke me not; Have mercy upon me, O God. The form of the anthems is unusual in that, instead of solo and chorus alternating works, the chorus repeats the solo material almost verbatim; this was not liturgical form, and perhaps Byrd understood that domestic performances required something a little different. It is thought that these three might be survivors of a set of seven covering all the penitential psalms, the remainder being lost. These are intimate and concentrated, with the voices and viols combining to creating a surprisingly intense texture.

Whereas the three penitential psalm settings are thought to date from late in Byrd's career, his liturgical settings of the psalms probably date from the early part. Teach me, Lord (with organ accompaniment) was probably written for the choir of Lincoln Cathedral in the 1560s; it is quite an intimate piece and rather a verse anthem in the way solo and chorus alternate, with instrumental pointing. Christ Rising dates from the 1580s, probably for the Elizabethan court, and we are somewhat back in the world of the domestic works at the beginning of the disc. I will give laud is a setting of the popular metrical psalms, and here the chorus simply repeats the text from the end of each verse. The use of the metrical verse gives the piece quite a lively, popular feel and Byrd reflects this in his lively rhythms.

There are always a lot of probablies in writing about William Byrd, and it would be fascinating to understand more about the exact circumstances of the use of liturgical music for viols; both Christ Rising and I will give laud use viols, does that mean that were written for some sort of non-standard liturgical occasion, or did adding instruments simply add grandeur.

Byrd's Look and bow down is definitely grander, more voices and performed here with sackbutts and cornets, plus organ. It and John Bull's Deliver me O, God both set words attributed to Elizabeth I from 1588 during the Armada crisis. Byrd's anthem seems to have been performed at St Paul's Cross in London before the Queen on 24 November 1588 when she went in procession from Whitehall to St Paul's Cathedral to offer thanks for deliverance from the Armada (the first time in 30 years that the queen had entered the City of London!). We also hear Bull's Almighty God, which by a leading star, an Epiphany piece with viols which was probably written for court use.

Thomas Morley's Out of the Deep was a liturgical piece, performed here with organ accompaniment though in Morley's writing you could almost hear the work performed on viols.

Edmund Hooper is a lesser known name, he was master of the choristers at Westminster Abbey and would be joint organist, with Orlando Gibbons, of the Chapel Royal. His consort song Hearken ye nations, with viol accompaniment, was written to mark King James' survival after the Gunpowder Plot and is remarkable in the way Hooper combines dense counterpoint with powerful oratory. Judging from his piece, Hooper's is quite a definite musical voice. His anthem O god of gods is by contrast a grand affair written for the anniversary of the succession of King James I. Performed here with sackbutts and cornetts, I enjoyed the way Hooper counterpoints the instruments with the voices, and wonder why his work is not better known.

With John Mundy's Sing joyfully the psalm setting at home moves from the complex and dark, to the lighter and melodic; Andrew Johnstone's booklet not describes this as a 'home-entertainment psalm'. Still sober, yet there is something engaging the piece.

The organ works by William Byrd, John Bull and Benjamin Cosyn, played by Silas Wolston, give us a chance to hear the 'Tudor' organ in all its glory. The organ combines the little that we know about early English organs, the Tudor soundboard found at Wetherinsett in Suffolk in 1977 and surviving pipework from John Loosemore's 1665 organ for Nettlecombe  Court. The result has a very striking timbre, quite narrow focused and very particular, and in Wolston's hands it really brings this music to life.

As with the first volume in the series, I enjoyed the way the performers on the disc create an intense, beautifully considered atmosphere, with voices and instruments combining to form a single consort.
This is a beautifully performed and well judged disc, where the striving for historically informed performance does not mask the high level of musicianship and an engaging intimacy of performance. The repertoire is remarkably varied, and it forms not only a striking history but a lovely recital.

William Byrd (1539/40/43 - 1623)
1. Hear my prayer
2. O Lord, rebuke me not
3. Have mercy upon me, O God
4. Fantasia (No. 46)
5. Teach me, O Lord
6. Christ rising again
7. I will give laud
8. Look and bow down

John Bull (1562/63 - 1628)
9. Almighty God, which by the leading of a star
10. Fantasia (No. a 16)
11. Deliver me, O God

Benjamin Cosyn (1570 - 1652)
12. Voluntary (No. 3)

Thomas Morley (1557/58 - 1602)
13. Out of the deep

Benjamin Cosyn
14. Voluntary (No. 1)

Edmund Hooper (1553 - 1621)
15. Hearken ye nations

John Mundy (1555 - 1630)
16. Sing joyfully

Edmund Hooper
17. O God of gods

Magdalena Consort, director Peter Harvey
Fretwork (Asako Morikawa, Amily Ashton, Jo Levine, Susanne Pell, Sam Stadlen, Richard Boothby)
His Majestys Sagbutts & Cornetts (Jeremy West, Jamie Savan, Helen Roberts, Sue Addison, Stephanie Dyer & Stephen Saunders)
William Lyons (dulcian)
Silas Wolston (organ)
William Hunt (artistic director)
Recorded at the church of St Jude on the Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London, 25-27 January 2019

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