‘Great King of Gods’
Magdalena Consort, His Majestys Sagbutts & Cornetts, Silas Wollston
Royal Greenwich Early Music Festival
St Margaret’s, Lee Terrace, Blackheath. 22 November 2016
Music by Gibbons, Byrd, and Tomkins
The predecessor building of the 17th century former Greenwich Royal Navel College (now part of the University of Greenwich, and usually the home of the Royal Greenwich Early Music Festival ) was the curiously named Palace of Placentia (or Pleasaunce). It survived from 1443 to 1660 and was the birthplace and, later, the principal home of Henry VIII and his daughters, Queen Mary, and Elizabeth I. James I and Charles I continued to use it as their main residence up to the Civil War, when it fell into disrepair. Records of musical activities are scant but, according to the rather curiously worded programme notes, there is a reference from the time of James I of the Chapel Royal singing anthems for him with ‘organs, cornets, sagbot, and other excellent instruments of music‘.
The concert given by the Magdalena Consort and His Majestys Sagbutts & Cornetts aimed to recreate some of the drama of those early 17th century royal occasions, with a well planned programme of groups of pieces combining choir and instruments with organ and instrumental solos by the three leading English composers of the day, Gibbons, Byrd, and Tomkins. The opening verse anthem Great King of Gods by Orlando Gibbons was accompanied by organ, rather than the viol consort that Gibbons probably intended. That said, throughout the evening, it was refreshing to hear the sound of the five singers combined with the two cornets and three sackbuts, giving a sense of the drama and colour that is often missing from performances of this repertoire. Great King of Gods was written for James I’s only return visit to Scotland in 1617, with the rather unsettling (for James) text that wishes him good health on the journey or, failing that, a peaceful transition to heaven.
The focus was on the music of Orlando Gibbons, with Byrd and Tomkins having less of a look in. As the anonymous writer of the programme note put it so, um, elegantly “What Gibbons uniquely brought to anthem, apart from svelte grace, was to marry musical weft subtly to the verbal grain of his texts, heightening with seeming ease the rhetoric of their spoken flow“. Quite so. The final piece was a literal showstopper, Gibbons’ consort anthem See, see the Word is incarnate, charting the life of Christ from birth to ascension. The singing from the Magdalena Consort was particularly impressive, both in consort and in the many solo moments, the latter notably from Catherina King, Charles Daniels and their director, Peter Harvey.
Although most of the audience didn’t realise it, and the performers didn’t entirely successfully signal it, I think the idea was to run three or four pieces together without the interruption of applause. This is pretty essential when you have 20 pieces to get through. But it is down to the performers to make sure, by words or actions, that the audience understand.
All but one section included an organ solo or two, played by Silas Wollston on an interesting chamber organ (by Richerby, Rose & Wooderson, 2015) that has recently joined the London organ hire scene. Based on German baroque organ models it certainly made its presence felt when played using all the stops, as it was for the Gibbons organ solos. The use of a lighter registration towards the end of the evening created a far clearer, more attractive, and more appropriate sound, in this case for organ pieces by Tomkins. Silas Wollston had an impressive grasp of the composers’ complex style of ornamentation.
During restoration work in the Greenwich buildings, the festival has moved up the hill to Blackheath. I’d not visited St Margaret’s, Lee Terrace before, but it is an impressed neo-Gothic building with a fine acoustic and some interesting late 19th century wall paintings and decorations.