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Robert FAYRFAX (1464–1521)
Music for Tudor Kings & Queens
Magnificat Regale [12:37]
Benedicite! What dremyd I? [2:02]
Alas, for lak of her presens [1:50]
Most clere of colour [1:34]
Missa Sponsus amat sponsum – Credo [5:43]
I love, loved and loved wolde I be [1:53]
Sumwhat musyng [2:57]
Ave lumen gratie [8:00]
That was my woo [2:18]
Salve regina [11:25]
To Complayne me, alas [3:02]
Maria plena virtute [13:38]
Ensemble Pro Victoria / Toby Ward.
rec. 8-10 March 2021, St Brandon’s Church, Brancepeth, County Durham, UK
Texts and translations included
DELPHIAN DCD34265 [67:07]

When in March 2020 the UK’s first Covid lockdown put musical performances into cold storage I was fearful first of all for the effect on musicians, professional and amateur. I also worried that the recording industry would be hard hit as the supply of recordings ‘in the can’ dried up over time. It’s true that new recordings of concert works and operas requiring large forces have been fewer in number in the last 18 months or so but, overall, the recording industry has proved remarkably resilient. It’s been noticeable how many new smaller-scale recordings have been issued. I understand that since March 2020 Delphian has managed to make no less than 36 new recordings, which is a great tribute to both the label itself and to the artists concerned.

One of those recordings is this one by the Ensemble Pro Victoria. The group was founded in 2015 and I think this may be their debut on CD. They’ve chosen to feature the music of Robert Fayrfax, judiciously mixing secular and sacred music. This release honours the 500th anniversary of his death.

It came as something of a shock to realise that it’s almost exactly twenty years ago that I reviewed a fine collection of five of Fayrfax’s mass settings as recorded in the mid-1990s by Andrew Carwood and The Cardinall’s Musick. High time, then, to hear another recording of this composer’s music.

In his scholarly notes Magnus Williamson reminds us that Robert Fayrfax was born into a large East Anglian family – he was one of twelve children – whose home was located near Peterborough and Stamford. Although Williamson doesn’t say so explicitly, the family were probably prosperous: they were certainly well connected. It’s not known exactly how and where Robert acquired his musical education but Magnus Williamson thinks that because he was a young gentleman this may well have been in an aristocratic household. By 1497 Fayrfax had become one of the Gentlemen of the Chapel Royal and he spent the rest of his life in royal service.

Ensemble Pro Victoria offer seven part-songs by Fayrfax. I hope I’ll be forgiven if I comment less on these pieces. It’s irrational, I know, but I find the secular vocal music of the Tudor and Stuart period exerts far less appeal to me compared with the sacred music. It’s illogical because, broadly speaking, the same compositional skills and techniques drive both styles. I think it’s the courtly melancholy – to say nothing of jolly fa-la-las – of the secular repertoire that puts me off. There’s no denying that these songs by Fayrfax are skilfully composed and Ensemble Pro Victoria sing them very well indeed. They need to be on their mettle because the writing in several of these pieces is elaborate and calls for no little virtuosity: I think particularly of Benedicite! What dremyd I? but several others are similarly demanding. It seems that the words of most of these songs are by anonymous authors. Alone among these seven, the words to Sumwhat musyng are by a known poet. In this case the writer was Anthony Woodville, second Earl Rivers (ca. 1440-1483). He wrote the poem while incarcerated in Pontefract Castle awaiting execution on the orders of King Richard III. Unsurprisingly, the words are a reflection suffused with melancholy; rather more surprising is the vigour in Fayrfax’s musical response.

No less than six compositions by Fayrfax were included in that prodigious source for early Tudor church music, the Eton Choirbook, though three of these pieces are now lost. The other three are included in this programme though, as Magnus Williamson points out, only Salve regina survives in the Choirbook in complete form. Ave lumen gratie is incomplete and Magnificat Regale was lost from the Choirbook but has been preserved in other contemporary sources.

In the Magnificat Fayrfax followed the example of contemporaries and composed polyphonic music for the even-numbered verses of the canticle. The present performance follows the practice whereby the odd-numbered verses are sung to plainchant-based improvised vocal polyphony. I learned from the notes that the setting is “loosely related” to the Missa Regale ex progenie, which is included on the aforementioned set from The Cardinall’s Musick. The polyphonic verses of Fayrfax’s Magnificat feature elaborate, exuberant writing which Ensemble Pro Victoria deliver with great precision and skill.

Ave lumen gratie is an anthem in two parts and it is the second part which is partially missing. For this recording Magnus Williamson has used the compositional style of Part I, which survives in full, as a template to make a scholarly – and, to my ears, wholly convincing – reconstruction of the lost music. Fayrfax’s use of lower voices imparts a suitably dark and rich timbre to the music.

The remaining Eton Choirbook piece is the five-voice setting of Salve regina. It’s probably quite an early work and in his notes, Williamson points out some compositional rough edges. I’m sure he’s right, but I still found a great deal to admire in this piece. I was struck especially by the rapt beauty of the chording at ‘Et Jesum’. Immediately after this, the words ‘benedictum fructum ventris tui’ are set to vigorous, celebratory music and the contrast is highly effective. Later on, at the words ‘O Clemens!’ and then at ‘O pia!’ Fayrfax repeats the device of rapt music, though in these instances the setting is a bit more elaborate. The last line of the anthem, ‘O dulcis Maria salve’ is set to music that is devotionally sincere and very touching.

Missa Sponsus amat sponsum has an interesting, if slightly speculative history. As Magnus Williamson tells us, it has never been recorded. This is probably because it doesn’t survive in a complete form. For example, the Credo, which is recorded here, has been found in a lute arrangement of some of the vocal parts. From this Williamson and Roger Bray have made a choral reconstruction though, intriguingly, the lute part (played by Toby Carr) has been retained. I can’t recall hearing Tudor liturgical music sung with the involvement of a lute but the results are persuasive. The booklet gives more information about the work that the editors have done to reconstruct the music. I was fascinated by Magnus Williamson’s theory as to why the mass setting only survived in fragmentary sources. The title of the work suggests it was composed for a nuptial mass and it had been thought that the occasion might have been the marriage in 1502 of Prince Arthur and Catherine of Aragon. However, Williamson plausibly suggests that the mass might have been designed instead for the subsequent marriage in 1509 of Henry VIII to Catherine who was, by then, his brother’s widow. Once that ill-fated marriage foundered music associated with the wedding would probably have fallen into disfavour and kept alive only by a handful of recusants. I think it’s a very persuasive theory.

The longest piece on the programme is Maria plena virtute. This is unusual in that the text addresses both the crucified Christ and his sorrowing mother, Mary. This was probably composed in the 1510s, by which time Fayrfax was securely in royal service. The music is less elaborate than is the case with the other liturgical pieces on this disc. Instead, Fayrfax is plainer and more direct of utterance, even austere. That approach, I think, is consistent with the text. This extensive anthem is very eloquent, especially in the final stanza (‘O dolorosa mater Christi’). The performance is superb, really bringing out the eloquence of the music.

As I said earlier, I believe this is Ensemble Pro Victoria’s first CD. If so, it’s a most auspicious debut. Eleven singers are involved and the ensemble is highly disciplined; a fine blend is achieved. Where the forces are thinned down to a few voices the solo singers are excellent. Clearly, a great deal of thought and scholarship has gone into the preparation of the music yet the performances sound anything but studied. Rather, these singers bring the music to life under Toby Ward’s assured direction.

I’m not sure if Delphian have used St Brandon’s Church, Brancepeth as a recording venue before. It sounds to be a most sympathetic place in which to sing this sort of music. Paul Baxter has recorded the singers with his customary skill. All the parts emerge clearly – which, of course is a tribute also to Toby Ward and his singers – yet there’s also a pleasing warmth to the sound and just the right degree of resonance. The documentation is excellent. I found Magnus Williamson’s booklet essay to be scholarly but highly informative.

John Quinn

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