Tuesday 27 June 2023

A refreshing sense of lightness: Chichester Cathedral Choir & the Rose Consort of Viols in sacred music by Chichester Cathedral's 17th-century organist, Thomas Weelkes

What joy so true: Anthems, Canticles and Consort music by Thomas Weelkes: Choir of Chichester Cathedral, The Rose Consort of Viols, Charles Harrison; Regent Records
What joy so true: Anthems, Canticles and Consort music by Thomas Weelkes: Choir of Chichester Cathedral, The Rose Consort of Viols, Charles Harrison; Regent Records

Recorded by the modern successors to Weelkes own choir, this disc brings a lovely freshness and naturalness to a highly imaginative survey of the composer's sacred works from large-scale anthems to intimate consort music

Thomas Weelkes moved to Chichester Cathedral in 1601 or 1602 to take up the post of organist and informator choristarum (instructor of the choristers), he was still in his mid-20s (he may have been born in 1576). Weelkes would remain at Chichester until his death in 1623, though his time there was not uncomplicated. Only one volume of his sacred music was published during his lifetime and we are dependent on manuscript sources for the majority of his sacred repertoire, with part-books surviving incomplete. 

It is rather appropriate, then, that a disc from Regent Records celebrating the 450th anniversary of Weelkes' death comes from Chichester Cathedral. Charles Harrison directs Chichester Cathedral Choir, with Timothy Ravalde (chamber organ), Thomas Howell (organ solos) and the Rose Consort of Viols. 

The disc is admirably comprehensive, giving us 'Anthems, Canticles and Consort music by Thomas Weelkes', so we get two of his services, the Te Deum and Jubilate from the concise, almost austere Short Service, and Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis from the Sixth Service whose modest resources, using five-part choir, suggest it was written for Chichester.  It is a lovely luxury here to hear the canticles from the Sixth Service with viol accompaniment, bringing another colour palate to the music, especially as this service is written as a verse anthem, alternating solo and choir.

There are anthems, from the modest five-part ones such as Oh, how amiable and Deliver us, O Lord our God which would have suited the small choir at Chichester, to the large-scale O Lord, grant the King a long life which expands from six to seven parts and has a spaciousness of texture that suggests it was written for the Chapel Royal (with which Weelkes had a tenuous link). 

When David heard is one of the many anthems which reflected the outpouring of grief on the death of James I's eldest son, Prince Henry. It is rightly one of Weelkes' best-known works, yet in atmosphere, it often comes closer to his madrigals than his anthems. It and his other related work, O Jonathan are rightly seen now as sacred madrigals rather than strictly anthems. Having them performed by a cathedral choir might have surprised, and perhaps, delighted the composer. Hosanna to the Son of David is another large-scale piece that has found a place in the liturgical repertoire but which originally was written for a different context, probably a royal progress.

There are also psalm settings, but there are other sacred, non-Biblical texts reflecting the fact that not all this repertoire was written for church, some was for private devotional use and there would be an overlap. Here we hear O happy he and Most mighty and all-knowing Lord, the second with viols giving us a sense of a private performance. There are two verse anthems, Christ rising whose vocal parts do not survive and have had to be reconstructed from the organ part, and What joy so true. Both are performed with the viol consort, the viol parts having been reconstructed based on organ parts. Choir and viols was not common in church but these verse anthems could also have been performed in private devotions, and the atmosphere here is lovely.

There are two organ voluntaries, here played on the cathedral's main organ but using 8 foot and 4 foot stops which date from 1725, thus giving an aptly period feel to the music. They are brief, dignified pieces, probably intended to come after the psalm and it is perhaps a shame that custom of the time means we do not have further larger-scale organ works by Weelkes. We also hear four of Weelkes' works for viols alone, two In nomines and two Pavanes.

Weelkes' time at Chichester was not uncontroversial. The cathedral was not well off and the choir was modest, its resources poor. There were problems with the musicians' behaviour - brawling, drunkenness, poor attendance - predating Weelkes and he seems to have been drawn in. There are repeated comments, decrees, recommendations from the Bishops Visitation and more, but still Weelkes seems to have hung on, sometimes unofficially.  Clearly, despite his problematic behaviour, including being argumentative, his music was valued. Of course, it is always tricky reconstructing a life just from the official record, we only hear the bad bits and have no record of the good, except of course for the music.

Weelkes published mainly madrigals during his lifetime, dedicating his books to a variety of people in the hope of attracting a patron. A 1608 publication claims he was a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal, but no documentation for this exists and it may be that it was a temporary post. Despite spending increasing amounts of time in London, Weelkes musical career seems to have been based mainly in Chichester. 

His sensitivity to the text, something that comes across in his madrigals, makes his music very apt for private devotions and the sense of madrigalian lightness that comes across in much of his music is well-caught here. In some places, you feel he is reining himself in to confine the music to what was expected, in such moments as the Short Service and the psalm settings.

Chichester Cathedral Choir, the Rose Consort of Viols & Charles Harrison
Chichester Cathedral Choir, the Rose Consort of Viols & Charles Harrison at a recording session in the Cathedral, May 2022

Chichester's musical resources are still relatively modest, though under Charles Harrison the choir has achieved significant things. On this disc we have 14 trebles and two each of the lower three parts and there is a strong sense of the choir's familiarity with each other, with the music and with the liturgy. This is not the most luxurious of recordings of Weelkes' music, but there is a refreshing sense of lightness here and a feeling that the music is embedded in the choir's psyche, a lovely naturalness to the performance of the liturgical pieces. In fact, what comes over is the sheer lack of performance, this is not something put on for the camera, it is part of their everyday and the members of the choir, boys and adults, contribute some lovely sensitive solos. 

The choir is well-supported and complemented by the Rose Consort of Viols, who contribute typically sensitive performances of Weelkes' consort music, whilst both organists make a fine case for Weelkes' keyboard writing.

What joy so true: Anthems, Canticles and Consort music by Thomas Weelkes
What joy so true
Lord, to thee I make my moan
Morning Service(Short Service)
Evening Service (Sixth Service)
All people, clap your hands
Hosanna to the Son of David
O how amiable
When David heard
Voluntary 1 organ solo
Deliver us, O Lord
Pavane no 3
O mortal man
O happy he
In nomine a 5 no 1
Voluntary 2 organ solo
O Jonathan
O Lord, grant the King a long life
Rejoice in the Lord
Pavane no 2
Most mighty and all-knowing Lord
In nomine a 5 no 2
Christ rising again
The Choir of Chichester Cathedral
The Rose Consort of Viols
Charles Harrison (director)
Timothy Ravalde (chamber organ)
Thomas Howell (organ solo)
Recorded in Chichester Cathedral, May 2022

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