Music At the Court of Margaret of Austria
Dorothee Mields, Boreas Quartett Bremen
AUDITE 97.783. 61’30
What a beautiful recording. Outstanding singing from Dorothee Mields, exquisitely delicate recorder playing from the Boreas Quartett Bremen, fascinating early 16th-century music from a little-known source, and an insight into the musical world of the Burgundian court in Mechelen. Despite a lovely back story to the CD and the music, this is one of those recordings that you can just lie back and listen to for sheer musical pleasure. If relaxed wafting is not for you, read on for more background.
Laus Polyphoniae – Polyphony of life
19-23 August 2022
After a three-year Covid-induced hiatus when Laus Polyphoniae ran a much-reduced series of live and online events, the 2022 Festival restored the postponed 2020 edition, under the title Polyphony of life. As usual, the festival was run by AMUZ (Flanders Festival Antwerp) in conjunction with the Alamire Foundation, the study centre for music in the Low Countries and part of KU (Katholieke Universiteit) Leuven. As the name implies, Laus Polyphoniae is devoted to the music of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance when polyphony was paramount.
Psalmes, Sonets & Songs of sadnes and pietie
Alamire, Fretwork, David Skinner
Inventa Records INV1006. 2CDs, 78’54 + 78’20
The 1588 Psalmes, Sonets, & songs of sadnes and pietie was William Byrd’s first solo publication after the Cantiones Sacrae of 1575, a joint venture with Thomas Tallis. This recording is also a joint venture between the chamber choir Alamire and the viol consort Fretwork. It was recorded, appropriately, in the isolated church of All Saints’ Church, Holdenby, in Northamptonshire, the only surviving relic of a village that was moved by Sir Christopher Hatton, Elizabeth I’s Lord Chancellor and the patron of the 1588 collection, when he built (in 1583) the nearby Holdenby House, itself now reduced to a few remnants from its initial grandeur as one of the largest houses in the country.
John Sheppard: Media Vita in Morte Sumus
Alamire, David Skinner
Resonus/Inventa INV1003, Digital EP. 16’30
There is an interesting back story to this 16-minute downloadable EP of John Sheppard’s famous Media Vita in Morte Sumus (In the midst of life we are in death). Much performed and recorded, this piece can last up to 30-minutes in length, making it a complex prospect for recording and concert programming. This recording is based on recent research that reassesses the structure of the piece, reducing it to this entirely appropriate and more manageable shorter version. Continue reading
Hieronymus Praetorius: Motets in 8, 10, 12, 16 & 20 Parts
Alamire, His Majestys Sagbutts and Cornetts
David Skinner, Stephen Farr
Resonus: Inventa Records. INV001. 2 CDs: 57’46 + 42’39
I have waited years for a comprehensive recording of Hieronymus Praetorius and this one ticks all the boxes. I first got to know his organ music many years ago, finding in him a very rare example of a North German organ composer from before the generation of Sweelinck students that dominated Hamburg and North German musical life in the 17th century (of which his sons were a key part). That progression eventually led to the peak of the North German Baroque, Dieterich Buxtehude. Although there were indications of the post-Sweelinck style, his musical language was distinct, if occasionally rather impenetrable, and clearly represented an important late Renaissance style of organ composition and performance. The joy of this double CD set is that several organ pieces are included, along with some of the magnificent multi-part motets, with up to 20 independent voices. Continue reading
Tage Alter Musik Regensburg
18-21 May 2018
Seventeen concerts of early music in just four days is the promise of the Regensburg Tage Alter Musik festival. It is held annually over the Pentecost/Whitsun weekend, alongside non-musical Regensburg celebrations, including a beer festival and fairground that brings the local youth out in their distinctive Bavarian outfits. Tage Alter Musik takes place within the architectural and historic delights of this beautiful city on the Danube – the entire city centre is a World Heritage site. Venues for the concerts include austere Gothic, glittering Baroque/Rococo, and the historic Reichssaal in the Altes Rathaus, for centuries the permanent seat of the Parliament of the Holy Roman Empire. The weekend runs from Friday evening, with two concerts, followed by five concerts on Saturday, Sunday and Monday, the latter including a concert that started at 00:15 in the morning!
Thomas Tallis: Songs of Reformation
Alamire, David Skinner
St John’s, Smith Square: Holy Week Festival. 12 April 2017
After the Holy Week Festival showcase Good Friday afternoon St John Passion came a concert focussed on one of England’s finest composers, Thomas Tallis. Living though the reigns of five monarchs (from Henry VII to Elizabeth), and composing in the latter four of them, Tallis managed to negotiate the complex religious twists and turns of Tudor life. The highlights of the evening came at the end, with the first modern performance of David Skinner’s reconstruction of a piece composed by Tallis (an early version of the famous Gaude gloriosa Dei mater), but with new words (See, Lord, and behold) added by Katherine Parr, Henry VIII’s eighth and final Queen. Continue reading
Laus Polyphoniae – Antwerp
This year, Antwerp’s annual Laus Polyphoniae festival, now in its 22nd year, celebrated one it can claim as its own (at least for a period): the music copyist Petrus Alamire, creator of some of the most extraordinary music manuscripts in the decades around 1500. Born in Nuremburg, Alamire (a musical alias of Peter Imhof: A-la-mi-re) soon moved to the Low Countries and quickly established himself as compiler of beautiful scores of music of Franco-Flemish composers, then at the peak of their importance. His clients included many of the crowned heads of Europe. His choirbooks contain more than 800 pieces, composed over a period of around 70 years, with the emphasis on masses, motets and chansons. Collectively they represent the development of the important Renaissance polyphonic style in the Low Countries and northern France. Continue reading
Anne Boleyn’s Songbook
Alamire, David Skinner
Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, 13 Sept 2015
Having recently dusted off ‘The Spy’s Choirbook’, a manuscript by Alamire in the British Library, David Skinner and Alamire have now turned their attention to a manuscript that (arguably) belonged to Anne Boleyn, currently in the Royal College of Music (MS1070). The inscription ‘Mistres ABolleyne nowe this’ indicates the link to Anne, the ‘Mistres’ suggesting that the songbook was started before she became Queen in 1533 – and, I suggest, also before she became Marquess of Pembroke in 1532, and possibly before 1525 when her father was elevated to the peerage as a Viscount, or 1529 when he was created an Earl, both ranks giving Anne a courtesy title. ‘Nowe thus’ is her father’s motto.
David Skinner’s informative and user-friendly chats between the pieces of the concert explained his reasoning that this was indeed Anne’s songbook, not least on the basis of the contents of the book. The suggestion is that the book was started in Anne’s youth, during her time at the court of Margaret of Austria (Governor of the Haspburg Netherlands) in Mechelin, or when she was in the household of the Queen of France. Composers such as Compère, Brumel, Mouton and Josquin were all Franco-Flemish composers that Anne would have been familiar with during these times. A second layer of the book has clear references to later incidents in Anne’s complex life, not least to the early relationship between her and Henry VIII. One such example was the song Jouyssance vous donneray with the words ‘I will give you pleasure, my dear … everything will be good for those who wait’ – there is a suggestion that this is a song that Anne herself sang to Henry – who (we were gleefully told) she apparently pleasured “in the French manner” before their marriage. Continue reading
The Shakespeare Globe’s Sam Wanamaker Playhouse continued with its enterprising series of candle-lit musical events with ‘The Spy’s Choirbook’ (8 Feb 2015). The four singers of Alamire (along with The English Cornett & Sackbut Ensemble) presenting extracts from the British Library’s sumptuous manuscript (Roy 8.g.vii) produced in Antwerp at the workshop of Petrus Imhoff, who changed his name to the more musically appropriate Alamire (A-la-mi-re, as he often signed his name).
Like many musicians of his time, Alamire was a spy who was well acquainted with many of the crowned heads of Europe, including Maximillian, Charles V and Christian II of Denmark. He acted for Henry VIII against the exiled Yorkist pretender, Richard de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk. He also presented Henry VIII with many musical gifts, including this enormous parchment manuscript, but amid accusations of counter-espionage he didn’t even receive thanks for his efforts, or his gifts. It was therefore perhaps apt that it turns out that the manuscript was in fact second hand, having been originally intended for Louise XII of France and Anne of Brittany. But, on the death of both of them, Alamire changed the dedication, and some of the words, to Henry and Catherine of Aragon who, like Louise and Anne, were desperate for a child. And so it is that London now has a collection of 34 motets works by the likes of Mouton, Josquin, Isaac and de la Rue.
Alamire’s director, David Skinner, conducted and introduced the story behind the manuscript. The whole manuscript has been recorded by substantially larger Alamire forces. The singing (from Clare Wilkinson, Nicholas Todd, Greg Skidmore and Rob Macdonald) was outstanding, as was the instrumental contributions, although I found the tenor shawm a rather better blend with the cornett and sackbuts than the alto shawm.