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Elizabethan Christmas Anthems
Red Byrd; The Rose Consort of Viols
rec. Forde Abbey, November, 1989. DDD.
Booklet with notes but no texts.
AMON RA CD-SAR46 [59:23]

Experience Classicsonline

 



Orlando GIBBONS (1583-1625) Verse Anthem: This is the Record of John [3:39]
William BYRD (1542-1623) Christe qui lux es (instrumental setting) [1:19]
Thomas TOMKINS (1572-1676) Verse Anthem: Sing Unto God [6:07]
Martin PEERSON (1580-1650) Upon my Lap [4:31]
William BYRD Fantasy 2 in 1 (à5) [5:52]
John AMNER (d.1641) Verse Anthem: O Ye Little Flock [5:45]
William BYRD Fantasy Browning [4:16]
Anthony HOLBORNE (d.1602) Consort Song: Sweet was the Song the Virgin Sung [2:09]
Pavan The Cradle; Galliard Lullabie [5:10]

William BYRD Consort Song Lullaby [5;19]
Orlando GIBBONS In Nomine [4:53]
Verse Anthem: See, see, the Word is Incarnate [5:41]

Iíll get my one grumble about this very enjoyable CD out of the way at once. As on their other recordings of Gibbons (Naxos 8.550603) and his contemporaries, Red Byrd insist on attempting to reproduce Elizabethan pronunciation, which comes over as a kind of Mummerset dialect with a touch of Dick van Dykeís attempts at cockney in Mary Poppins. I wish they wouldnít do it: it partly spoils my enjoyment of their otherwise excellent singing and there is no firm evidence as to how Elizabethan English sounded. My sweet little biby particular spoils an excellent performance of Byrdís Cradle Song (track 11).

We know much more about the pronunciation of Chaucer and Langland than we do about that of the language 200 years nearer to our own time; there just isnít enough evidence how fast the vowel change that transformed the pure medieval vowels into the impure, diphthongised, modern versions took place.

Strictly speaking, too, John Amnerís O Ye Little Flock (published in 1614) is a Jacobean, rather than an Elizabethan piece, but to have omitted it would have deprived us of some imaginative and attractive music, almost a miniature version of the medieval Shepherdsí Play.

This is the Record of John is Gibbonsís best-known anthem Ė rightly so, in my opinion; itís a little masterpiece and it makes a fine opening to the CD. Itís also in the right place in the time line, since the words come from the Gospel for the Fourth and last Sunday in Advent; therefore it rightly precedes the Christmas theme proper. Apart from my grumble about the pronunciation Ė take this as read from now on Ė it receives an excellent performance here, much more domestic in scale than classic recording by the likes of Kingís College Choir and Winchester Cathedral Choir (the latter with other music by Gibbons on Hyperion Helios CDH55228). Iím surprised that Jeremy Summerly didnít include it on his otherwise very recommendable Naxos CD of Gibbonsís Anthems and Services (8.553130 Ė another small-scale set of performances), but those looking to expand their knowledge of the music of Gibbons would be well advised to begin with the two Naxos CDs which I have mentioned, supplemented perhaps by the Helios disc Ė the basis of a sound collection for very little outlay.

The Amon Ra CD is well worth buying for this and the other Gibbons works alone. See, see, the Word is Incarnate (track 13) is included on the Summerly recording Ė a more Ďroundedí version, but not necessarily to be preferred to this lively Red Byrd account, which brings the CD to an enjoyable conclusion.

Byrdís fellow recusants would have recognised the underlying theme of his instrumental Christe, qui lux es et dies, a morning hymn from the Roman Breviary. Like all the instrumental pieces Ė and, indeed, the accompaniments of the sung items Ė itís well performed by the Rose Consort, exponents of authentic performance without tears, though certainly not without commitment.

Of the other instrumental items here, Byrdís Fantasy Browning was based on a popular tune, Thomas Ravenscroftís Browning madame; Gibbonsís In Nomine is explained in my comments below on the booklet of notes, and the two pieces by Holborne are in two popular dance forms of the day, the stately pavan or pavane and the galliard. If you find them attractive enough to want to explore Holborneís music more thoroughly, as well you may, other dances from his 1599 collection are available on a most recommendable super-budget CD on the Regis label (RRC1076, with selections from Prætoriusís Terpsichore).

The Verse Anthem was a peculiarly Anglican development; like the Full Anthem it was developed to supply the need for vocal music at the end of Mattins and Evensong, to replace the antiphon or anthem of the Virgin Mary which had previously been sung at the end of Compline. Though it was not until the revision of 1662 that the Book of Common Prayer inserted the famous rubric ĎIn Quires and places where they sing, here followeth the Anthemí, the practice had developed quite early in Elizabeth Iís reign.

Iíve already praised the performances of the anthems by Gibbons which begin and end the programme; that of Tomkinsís Sing unto God is equally fine and the music almost Ė but not quite Ė in the same league as that of Gibbons.

John Bullís The Starre Anthem is slightly unusual in that it is based on the Collect for the Epiphany: "O God, who by the guiding of a star dist manifest thy only-begotten Son to the Gentiles: Mercifully grant that we, which know thee now by faith, may after this life have the fruition of thy glorious Godhead; through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen." Itís also the sole example here of the Full Anthem, i.e. sung by the full choir.

The final vocal form represented here is the Consort Song, for solo voice and instruments. Byrdís Lullaby (track 12) is beautifully sung by Caroline Trevor (alto) and his Sweet was the Song (track 8) equally well by Kate Eckersley (soprano). Both pieces provide excellent examples of Byrdís genius, developed from that of his mentor Tallis, for pouring old wine into new bottles without souring the wine or breaking the bottle Ė the sentiments of the pre-reformation carol updated for Elizabethís essentially conservative reformation.

Though there are no texts, Red Byrdís pronunciation paradoxically mostly makes the diction very clear. For those who want them, however, most of the texts are available on the web. Otherwise, the booklet contains some very helpful notes, explaining, for example, how Gibbonsís In Nomine belongs to a peculiarly English instrumental genre, derived from the words In nomine Domini in Tavernerís setting of the Benedictus of his Mass Gloria tibi Trinitas. Donít worry if you find it hard to spot the tune here Ė part of the fun of this form was to disguise the original so thoroughly that only the scholarly could find it; the new piece had to be capable of entertaining on its own, which is certainly the case here.

The combination of vocal and instrumental music makes for a varied programme; all the performances are highly enjoyable Ė the performers actually sound as if they are enjoying their contributions Ė the recording and presentation are more than adequate and the whole CD is fun. So what are you waiting for?

Brian Wilson

Johan van Veen has also listened to this disc:

At the time this programme was originally recorded the repertoire was not completely unknown, but certainly not as often performed as it is today. But that doesn't mean this disc hasn't something interesting to offer. Today it is the way this repertoire is performed which makes it still worthwhile to listen to.

The most interesting aspect of the performance is the pronunciation of English. It is assumed this is the way English was spoken in the Elizabethan era. Over the years I have heard many recordings of music from this time, but only very seldom I have noticed the use of this kind of pronunciation. It was used by the ensemble Boston Camerata in a recording of songs by John Dowland, and one reviewer criticised that they were singing with an American accent. That is because the 'American r' is one of the more striking aspects of this pronunciation. It certainly doesn't sound like Standard English, but I find it very fascinating to hear this repertoire in this kind of performance, so different from the way it is sung by established English vocal ensembles.

The core of this disc is a number of verse anthems, sacred pieces in which sections for solo voice and tutti sections are alternating. These were sung in church, with organ accompaniment, but they also found their way to private homes, where they were performed as part of private worship. There the accompaniment was a consort of viols instead of the organ.

It is not only the pronunciation which is different, the interpretation as a whole is a bit more dramatic and stronger in (dynamic) contrasts than usual. The voices of the ensemble blend very well, and the individual singers give good performances of the solo sections.

In addition to the anthems a couple of consort songs are performed. This genre could be either sacred or secular, but there isn't always a strict separation between the two. The most famous song is William Byrd's 'Lullaby', sung by Caroline Trevor. The anonymous 'Sweet was the song the virgin sang' is also a lullaby; this beautiful piece is sung by Kate Eckersly.

The instrumental parts in these consort songs is played by the Rose Consort of Viols, which also plays some consort pieces. Although most of them have little or nothing to do with Christmas, they certainly fit well into the programme. The pavan and galliard by Anthony Holborne are most suitable as their titles indicate. Their character is well served by the fine sense of rhythm the Rose Consort displays.

Almost 20 years after this disc was first released these performances have lost nothing of their appeal. In a way it is a bit embarrassing that some of the aspects of the performance practice of this recording have had no real effect. But, apart from the particularities of the interpretation, this is just fine music in splendid performances. The only minus of this production is the lack of the lyrics in the booklet.

Johan van Veen


 

 

 


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