See, See, the Word is incarnate

See, See, the Word is incarnate
Choral & Instrumental music by Gibbons, Tomkins & Weelkes
The Chapel Choir of Trinity Hall, Cambridge,
Newe Vialles, Orpheus Britannicus Vocal Consort, Andrew Arthur

Resonus Classics RES10295. 70’51

The Chapel Choir of Trinity Hall, Cambridge, under the College’s Director of Music, Andrew Arthur, follow their previous recording of Buxtehude (reviewed here) with this exploration of some of the best-known music from the early decades of the 17th-century. This was the period when James I was on the throne of the two kingdoms of Scotland and England. Gibbons and Weelkes were both dead by the end of his reign (in 1625), but Tomkins (the first-born of the three) lived on until 1656 to witness, at considerable personal loss, the collapse of the Stuart dynasty and the Commonwealth.

The student choir is not without the almost inevitable problem of vibrato from some of the singers, perhaps most noticeably, as is often the case, in the upper voices. It is a large choir of 23, so achieving consort is bound to be tricky. More to the point is whether fielding such a large choir, although no doubt great for those involved, really does the music any favours. Too often a delicate opening sequence is followed by the large choir bursting in. Rather more surprising is the vibrato of the sopranos of Andrew Arthur’s professional Orpheus Britannicus Vocal Consort (Ensemble in Residence at Trinity Hall since 2018), notably in tracks 12 & 14. But particular mention should go to the two most distinguished of the Consort’s singers, countertenor Robin Blaze and tenor Nicholas Mulroy, the former for his solo in the opening track, Gibbon’s This is the record of John, and both combined in Tomkin’s My shepherd is the living Lord.

The five-strong viol consort New Vialles are most impressive in their three solo tracks. They also join in the large scale opening and closing tracks (This is the record of John & See, See, the Word is incarnate), something that may or may not have happened when they were originally performed.

The solo organ pieces are played on the same small continuo organ as used to accompany the vocal pieces. The gently subdued sound of the organ, in both guises, is attractive, but perhaps suggests domestic rather than church performance. In the latter, a larger church organ would presumably have been used, giving a much bolder organ sound. That said, the Tomkins Voluntary (in C, MB24) is dated 1647 and, like the other organ pieces recorded here, was (along with much of his surviving keyboard music) written down (if not actually composed) during the Puritan Commonwealth period, after his own organ in Worcester Cathedral had been destroyed and all church services stopped.

The piece billed a ‘Verse in a’ (track 9) is untitled in the source, but is called ‘Fancy’ in MB29, a rather more appropriate title given its secular nature. Both organists (organ scholar James Grimwood and Andrew Arthur) play well with appropriate attention to phrasing and articulation. Andrew Arthur’s performance of the Voluntary (in C, MB24) is particularly impressive, with its virtuosic concluding flourish executed perfectly.

Like their previous recording (reviewed here), this was recorded, not in the small Trinity Hall Chapel, but in the much more substantial Chapel of Jesus College, Cambridge. Andrew Arthur sets a pace that is refreshingly unhurried, giving the massed voices a chance for their individual lines to be heard in the generous acoustic. I imagine most early music lovers will have already recordings of much of this repertoire, but it is worth listening to the track sample on the Resonus website.