A Renaissance Christmas

A Renaissance Christmas
The Sixteen, Harry Christophers

Coro, COR16167. 67’11

A Renaissance Christmas

The publicity blurb that came with this CD refers to it as “a perfect alternative to traditional carols”, and it certainly is. Perhaps trying to seek forgiveness for their 2015 release, The Complete Traditional Christmas Carols Collection (recorded in 1991), The Sixteen here concentrate on music from the Renaissance era. They bring their particular brand of highly professional choral singing to a well-balanced sequence of pieces from composers born between 1505 and 1580, a period when the Renaissance reached its zenith as religion in Europe reached one of its periodic nadirs. Continue reading

Gesualdo Six: There is no rose

There is no rose
The Gesualdo Six, Owain Park
St John’s, Smith Square, 14 December 2018

Although only formed four years ago, The Gesualdo Six have gained an impressive following, not least at St John’s, Smith Square where they were one of the four members of the second Young Artists Scheme in 2015/16. They used that residency to launch their Composition Competition at SJSS, with the second following in 2019. For their concert in this year’s SJSS Christmas Festival, they gave a mixed programme of Christmas music ranging from plainchant and the early 15th century Trinity Carol Roll and music by Taverner and Tallis, through to living composers, including their own director Owain Park. Continue reading

Andrew Benson-Wilson – Organ recital: ‘From England’

Andrew Benson-Wilson
plays organ music
‘From England’

Biel organ 4.jpg

Stadtkirche (Temple Allemand)
Biel/Bienne, Switzerland
21 September 2018, 12:30

A recital on the reconstruction of the original 1517 ‘Swallow’s nest’ organ (Hochwandorgel) in the Stadtkirche (Temple Allemand) Biel/Bienne. Music by Anon, Dunstable, Preston, Tallis, Byrd, and Bull, the latter played on the Hauptorgel.

Anon: Robertsbridge Codex (c1360) Estampie
John Dunstable (c1390-1453) Sub Tuam Protectionem
Anon (c1530) Felix Namque
Thomas Preston (c1500-1563) Uppon la mi re
Thomas Tallis (c1505-1585) Alleluia Per te Dei genitrix
William Byrd (1538-1623) Callino Casturame
John Bull (1562-1628) Salve Regina (5 verses) Continue reading

In honour of the Virgin

In honour of the Virgin
The Cardinall’s Musick
St John’s, Smith Square. 14 December 2016

facebook_1482140390703 (1).jpgThe 31st St John’s, Smith Square Christmas Festival features most of the usual suspects, including regulars, The Cardinall’s Musick. As is typical of their concerts, the focus was on Catholic liturgical music from the Renaissance, on this occasion in honour of the Virgin Mary. In a ‘greatest hits’ line-up of Renaissance composers, the first half was built around Lassus’s Missa Osculeter me osculo oris sui alternating with motets by Victoria; the second centered on Byrd’s Propers for the Nativity of the Virgin Mary and concluded with Palestrina’s Magnificat primi toni a 8. 

I have never quite understood how the Song of Songs managed to get accepted into the Bible. However much commentators from the Jewish or Christian tradition attempt to find allegorical links in the Song of Solomon, in the latter case, with the New Testament stories, it remains so obviously an evocation of sexual love of a most explicit kind: the closest that Solomon could get to internet porn. Continue reading

Spitalfields Music: ‘Sound House’

Spitalfields Music
‘Sound House’
The Society of Strange and Ancient Instruments, Jon Nicholls
The Octagon, Queen Mary University of London. 8 December 2016

Music by Jon Nicholls, Tobias Hume, William Lawes, William Byrd, Thomas Tomkins, Orlando Gibbons.

WP_20161208_18_44_05_Pro.jpgFor many years now, Spitalfields Music has been spreading its wings way beyond its original home in Spitalfields, both for its major programme of community work and for venues for its musical and other performances. It is now a major arts and community organisation covering the whole of the East End of London. Among the venues for this year’s winter festival (which included a hidden Masonic Temple) was The Octagon, built in 1887 as part of the grand premises of the People’s Palace, described in The Times on its opening as a “happy experiment in practical Socialism”. It is now the home of Queen Mary University of London. The architect, ER Robson (best known for his influential school designs), used the British Museum Reading Room for inspiration in designing the octagonal library.

Image result for Bacon Sound housesMore ‘happy experiments’ were in evidence in the programme ‘Sound House’ given by The Society of Strange and Ancient Instruments (SSAI). It was based on the 17th century scientific writings and acoustic experiments of Francis Bacon, as described in his posthumously published Sylva Sylcarum and New Atlantis. In the latter vision of a new society, Bacon promoted the idea of Sound Houses where his acoustic experiments could be continued and better appreciated by the populace. Bacon’s musical ideas might seem commonplace today, not least through the medium of electronics and manipulated sound, and his experimental approach to sound is a key feature of many musicians today.

Continue reading

‘Great King of Gods’

‘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 Continue reading

Dynamisch: the ‘Wind Organ’

Dynamisch
Die Orgeln der Stadtkirche Biel
Pascale Van Coppenolle
Tulip Records. Ture 201521. 2CDs 75’03+ 64’24

CD1. ‘From Hexachord to Chromatiscism’: Scheidt, Byrd, Frescobaldi, Bull, Sweelinck, Bach, Liszt
CD2. ‘Wind organ’ improvisations: Whistle for a While (Hans Koch, bass clarinet), Clusterizing (organ solo), Zebra (Jonas Kocher, accordion), Fusion (Hannah E. Hänni, voice), Sprinkling (Luke Wilkins, violin).

The city of Biel (official known as Biel/Bienne) in the Swiss canton of Berne lies on the boundary of the German and French speaking areas of Switzerland, hence its bilingual name. Rather appropriately, its town church contains two organs which also speak in two (or more) languages, from ancient to (very) modern, as represented on this fascinating double CD.

The first CD is based on the use by composers of the Hexachord, the first six notes of the major scale, usually written as Ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la. The first three pieces (Scheidt, Byrd, and Frescobaldi) are played on a modern (Metzler, 1994) version of the late Gothic organ of 1517 that briefly survived in the church until the Reformation authorities dismantled it just 10 years later. It has two manuals with pull-down pedals. The compass of the two manuals is the usual Gothic/Renaissance one of C-a” and F-a”, Continue reading

Magnificat: Scattered Ashes

Scattered Ashes
Josquin’s Miserere and the Savonarolan Legacy
Magnificat, Philip Cave
Linn CKD517. 2 CDs. 84’00.

Josquin des Prez: Miserere mei, Deus; Palestrina; Tribularer, si nescirem; Le Jeune; Tristitia obsedit me; Lassus: Infelix ego; Lhéritier: Miserere mei, Domine;  Gombert: In te, Domine, speravi; Clemens non Papa: Tristitia obsedit me; Byrd: Infelix ego.

Magnificat vocal ensemble celebrate their 25th anniversary with this CD of extraordinarily powerful large-scale polyphonic works by Renaissance masters, all influenced by the equally extraordinary Italian Dominican friar and prophet, Girolamo Savonarola. His rather alarming prophesies (including declaring Florence to be the ‘New Jerusalem’, the destruction of all things secular, and a biblical flood), his denouncement of the Medicis, clerical corruption, and the exploitation of the poor, together with his extreme puritanical views (resulting in the Bonfire of the Vanities) led, not surprisingly, to his getting himself caught up in Italian and Papal politics.

The Duke of Ferrara, of the Ferrara d’Este family, was a supporter of Savonarola. After his execution, the Duke asked his newly appointed composer, Continue reading

The Sixteen: The Deer’s Cry

The Sixteen: The Deer’s Cry
Coro COR16140. 66’52

Tallis/Byrd: Miserere nostri
Tallis: When Jesus went into Simon the Pharisee’s house.
Byrd: Diliges Dominum, Christe qui Lux Miserere mihi, Domini, Tribue Domine, Emendemus in melius, O Lux beata Trinitas, Ad Dominum cum tribularer, Laetentur coeli;
Pärt: The Deer’s Cry, Nunc dimittis The Woman With The Alabaster Box;

The Deer’s Cry: The Sixteen sing Pärt, Byrd & TallisIf you are mathematically minded, this might be the CD for you. Some of the most complex examples of English contrapuntal wizardry from Tallis and Byrd are balanced by more recent, but equally complex and evocative music, from the Estonian composer, Arvo Pärt. As the programme note explains, “Here, Tallis and Byrd meet Pärt on common ground”, although at times, Pärt’s music can sound earlier than that of Tallis and Byrd with its sense of mediaeval structure and texture. This CD will whet your appetite for The Sixteen’s 2016 Choral Pilgrimage, when you can experience this music performed live in some of the most beautiful venues the UK can offer.

The CD opens with Byrd’s extraordinary eight-voice Diliges Dominum, a palindrome (or ‘crab canon’) that sounds exactly the same (words excepted) whether performed forwards or backwards. Almost certainly an act of pure Continue reading

O Come, Emmanuel!

O Come, Emmanuel!
Ensemble Plus Ultra
St John’s, Smith Sq. 17 December 2015

Victoria: Missa Ave Regina caelorum; Byrd: Lady Mass Advent Propers; Hieronymus Praetorius: Magnificat quinti toni, and pieces by Morales, Michael Praetorius etc.

As part of the 30th annual St John’s, Smith Square Christmas Festival, Ensemble Plus Ultra contributed a programme of Advent and Christmas music from Spain, England, and Germany. The rather curious opening had three female singers on stage, while five men approached down the two side aisles, deconstructing the Advent chant Veni, veni Emmanuel by passing it between all three groups. The rest of the first half was a very effective interspersing of Victoria’s 1600 Missa Ave Regina caelorum with Byrd’s 1607 five-part Propers for Lady Mass during Advent. This was preceded by Victoria’s 1581 double choir setting of the Missa Ave Regina caelorum antiphon, upon which the parody mass was based. Although the Continue reading

Loquebantur: Music from the Baldwin Partbooks

Loquebantur: Music from the Baldwin Partbooks
The Marian Consort (dir. Rory McCleary) & Rose Consort of Viols
Delphian DCD34160. 66’12

Parsons: The Song Called Trumpets; Tallis: Loquebantur variis linguis; Mundy: Adolescentulus sum ego; Byrd: Canon Six in One, O salutaris hostia; Aston: Hugh Astons Maske; Gerarde: Sive vigilem; Bevin: Browning; Ferrabosco: I Da pacem Domine; Lassus: Ubi est Abel; Hollander: Dum transisset Sabbatum; Tallis: Suscipe quaeso Domine; Taverner: Quemadmodum; Mundy: Adhaesit pavimento; Baldwin: Coockow as I me walked; Sheppard: Ave maris stella.

I reviewed The Marian Consort in their concert during the Regensburg Tage Alter Musik festival, where they sang music from the Robert Dow partbooks, dating from the mid-1580s. My review of their CD of that music can be found hereTheir latest CD explores another manuscript from Christ Church Oxford, the Baldwin Partbooks, a very personal collection of pieces that Baldwin would have got to know during his time as a lay clerk at St George’s Windsor and in the Chapel Royal. He is also known as the copyist of My Ladye Nevells Booke. One of the six vocal partbooks is missing, so some detective work and reconstruction has been required. At the end of the manuscript are some untexted, and presumably instrumental, pieces here played by the Rose Consort of Viols. Continue reading

Tallis Scholars: 2000th concert

Tallis Scholars: 2000th concert
St John’s Smith Square, 21 September 2015

Taverner: Leroy Kyrie; Sheppard: Missa Cantate; Gabriel Jackson: Ave Dei Patris filia; Byrd: Infelix Ego. Ye Sacred Muses, Tribue Domine.

The Tallis Scholars were founded in 1973 in Oxford and gave their first London concert in St John’s, Smith Square three years later. They returned there for their 2000th concert with an adventurous programme centred on the extraordinary, but rarely performed Missa Cantate by the enigmatic John Sheppard. This is a curious work, although the title ‘Sing’ is pretty clear, as is its festal nature. It probably dates from the mid-1550s during Queen Mary’s reign. As was usual in England in masses of this kind, the Kyrie was not set (something that escaped the attention of the programme compiler who listed a Kyrie in the text translations). To make up for that, John Taverner’s ‘Leroy’ Kyrie opened the concert, its slowly three lower unfolding melismatic lines supporting a treble cantus that might have been composed by Henry IV or V – hence the Le Roy name. This revealed what became one of the highlights of the evening: the outstanding singing by the four sopranos whose clear, unaffected and focussed voices were a constant delight.the tallis scholars early music vocal ensemble peter phillips Continue reading

Tenebrae by Candlelight

Tenebrae by Candlelight
Chapelle du Roi – Alistair Dixon director
St John’s, Smith Square, 1 April 2015

Palestrina: Lamentations, Gesualdo: Tenebrae Responds, Victoria: O Domine Jesu, Mass: Ave Regina, Ave Regina Coelorum, de Monte: Super Flumina Babylonis, Tallis: Lamintations I&II,  In Jejunio et Fletu, Derelinquit Impius, Byrd: Emendemus in Melius, Guerrero: O Domine Jesu.

The regular pre-Christmas and pre-Easter concerts in St John’s, Smith Square given by the vocal group Chapelle du Roi continued with one of their best yet as they celebrated ‘Tenebrae by Candlelight’.  ‘Celebrated’ is a loose term, as this was not a liturgical reconstruction, but a reflection on the music for Holy Week generally intended for use during the Tenebrae service.  The monastic service of Tenebrae was a combination of the office of Matins, normally sung just before sunrise, and the sunrise service Continue reading

The Virtuoso Organist: Tudor and Jacobean Masterworks

The Virtuoso Organist: Tudor and Jacobean Masterworks
Stephen Farr, organ, Choir of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge Resonus RES10143. 68’35
William Byrd, John Bull, Thomas Tallis, Thomas Tomkins, John Blitheman & Orlando Gibbons. 2013 Taylor & Boody Opus 66 organ, Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge.

The programme on this CD is designed to demonstrate the new 7-stop chamber organ in the Chapel of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge.  It is designed in a 16th to early 17th century Dutch/North German style, one arguably similar to that of the English organ of the same period, about which we know very little as far as the sound is concerned.

The programme covers the English organ repertoire from about 1540 to 1637.  Tallis’s Ecce tempus idoneum and the anonymous Bina caelestis and Magnificat include chanted verses sung by the men of Sidney Sussex College Choir in the ‘alternatim’ tradition of the period.   The musical highlight is Farr’s magnificent performance of Thomas Tomkins’s monumental Offertory, at over 17 minutes long, one of the most complex examples of a uniquely English genre. It was very likely influenced by the two large-scale Tallis examples in the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book. Stephen Farr’s control of the pulse and build up of tension in this remarkable piece is exemplary – he demonstrates similar skill in Orlando Gibbons Fantasia (the Fancy in Gam ut flat) and the concluding Byrd A Fancie, from ‘My Ladye Nevells Booke’ (1591).

Tallis himself is represented by two verses on Ecce tempus idoneaum, featuring the prominent ‘false relations’ so typical of Tallis. The earliest pieces are from the enormous British Library Add. 26669 collection, dating from around 1540/50 and later owned and annotated by Tomkins – the hymn setting of Bina caelestis and a Magnificat by an anonymous composer that could well be Thomas Preston. The secular repertoire is represented by John Bull’s Galliard ‘to the Pavin in D sol re’ and Coranto Joyeuse, the latter using the delightfully pungent Vox Virginia reed stop.

Although he allows himself an occasional flourish (notably in the anonymous Bina caelestis) Farr’s playing is methodical in a way that is entirely appropriate for recordings.  His interpretations will repay repeated listening, with no risk of annoying mannerisms.  In live performance one might expect a little more flexibility in interpretation, but such individualisms can be tricky when set in recorded stone. His articulation and touch are attractively subtle.  We can hear the occasional slight pairing of notes (for example, in track 4, John Bull’s In nomine II) but he otherwise wears his period performance credentials lightly.

The organ sounds very effective in this repertoire, and speaks into a helpful acoustic.  It is tuned in a very appropriate (but not quite meantone) temperament devised for the restoration of the famous late 17th century Schnitger organ in Norden, Germany. A reasonable solution, not least as there are several parts of the English organ repertoire of this period that can sound weird in meantone temperament, even if that could well have been the tuning of the period.  The CD notes include comprehensive essays on the music (by Magnus Williamson) and the organ (by the organ builder, George Taylor).

http://www.resonusclassics.com/organ/the-virtuoso-organist-stephen-farr

The Virtuoso Organist: Tudor and Jacobean Masterworks

[https://andrewbensonwilson.org/2015/04/03/the-virtuoso-organist-tudor-and-jacobean-masterworks/]

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Cardinall’s @ Cadogan

The Psalms of David are a key part of the liturgy of Christian and Jewish worship, and were rather nicely described by the (un-named) programme note writer of The Cardinall’s Musick concert (Cadogan Hall, 5 Feb) as a “collection of praises and complaints, benedictions and moans … dealing with the problems of ordinary life”.  Their programme looked at two of the many possible musical genres, comparing the European Catholic tradition of the 16th century with that of the English church of the same period, described by director Andrew Carwood as a collection of “sorbets and grand dishes”.

The 10 singers were used in many different formations, only coming together at the end of each half, firstly for the Allegri Miserere and then Byrd’s joyful Laudibus in sanctis.  After the opening Jubilate Deo by Giovanni Gabrieli, the first half was built around three of Victoria’s large-scale double-choir Vespers Psalm settings, Nisi Dominus, Dixit Dominus and Laudate Dominum.  These were contrasted with more intimate settings, notably Palestrina’s Super flumina Babylonis, with its closely-wrought stepwise musical lines, and the Ad Dominum cum tribularer by Lassus with its contrast between high and low voices.  The often intense English settings were intended for a very different liturgical purpose, usually as anthems during Evensong or Mattins, or for more private devotions.   Only with the opening Gibbons’ ‘O clap your hands together’ and the final Byrd Laudibus in sanctis did the English music approach the grandeur of Victoria’s settings.  Indeed, it was the intimate and madrigal-like ‘O Lord in thy wrath’ and Laboravi in gemitu meo (by Gibbons and Weelkes respectively) that were the emotional highlights for me.

The rather youthful photographs of Andrew Carwood and Cardinall’s Musick belied the fact that they are in their 25th year.  They were on excellent form on this occasion, their forthright vocal style ideal for the large-scale works as well as seeking out the emotional intensity of the more intimate works.

[https://andrewbensonwilson.org/2015/03/30/cardinalls-cadogan-5-feb-2015/]