Virgin and Child
Music from the Baldwin Partbooks II
Contrapunctus, Owen Rees
Signum Classics SIGCD474. 75’18
Tallis: Gaude gloriosa Dei mater, Magnificat, Videte miraculum; and pieces by Taverner, White, Fayrfax, and Sheppard.
The Baldwin Partbooks were copied in the 1570s and 80s by a member of the choirs of St George’s Windsor and the Chapel Royal, John Baldwin. They included printed pieces as well as Baldwin’s manuscript copies of music, from an earlier age, resulting in one of the most important surviving collections of polyphony from the reigns of Henry VIII and Mary Tudor. This, combined with a focus on music dedicated to the Virgin Mary, is the focus of the music on this volume, the second in the Contrapunctus series on music of the Baldwin Partbooks (the first was In the Midst of Life, SIGCD408).
The emotional and musical core of therecording are three magnificant pieces by Thomas Tallis, both written early in his composing career. The opening Gaude gloriosa Dei mater is 18 minutes of polyphonic and structural mastery, each of the nine sections (all opening with the word Gaude) acclaiming Mary in her various guises. Starting with two trio sections, Tallis soon expands into the full six voices, before further subdividing some of the parts in the distinctly English technique known as ‘gimell’. Videte miraculum, like his Magnificat, consists of choral and chanted verses. Incidentally, it lasts for 9’55, not the 13’10 shown on the CD cover and booklet of my review copy, one of a number of timing errors – the Magnificat is 10’25, not 5’30.
Robert Fayrfax’s Ave Dei patris filia is another powerful and extended work, the series of contrasting acclamations inventively scored for different voices. Owen Rees’s intelligent CD notes describe the background to the Baldwin Partbooks and the pieces included on this recording. Twelve singers are involved, some just for a few tracks. You need to like the sound of very high sopranos, for they feature on most of the pieces, fortunately with crystal clear, beautifully focussed, stable, and excellently tuned voices that blend well with the rest of the consort. It is perhaps in the nature of pieces like this that the volume and poyphonic intensity is pretty uniform throughout. It is recorded in the church of St Michael and All Angels, Oxford, the generous acoustic adding an attractive bloom to the sound, perhaps heard to best effect in the frequent pauses in the Tallis Magnificat.