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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    



Robert FAYRFAX (1464-1521)
The Masses

  • Missa O quam glorifica
  • Missa Tecum principum
  • Missa Albanus
  • Missa O bone Ihesu (including Elevation motet Resurrexio Christi)
  • Missa Regali ex progenie
  • The Cardinallís Musick directed by Andrew Carwood and David Skinner
    Recorded in the Fitzalan Chapel, Arundel Castle, Arundel.
    Recording dates: (1) November 1994; (2) May 1995; (3) October 1995;
    (4) May 1996; (5) May 1997
    ASV Gaudeamus CD GAX 353 [225.23]
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    Letís not beat about the bush. These are magnificent discs containing sumptuous examples of early Tudor polyphony presented in first class performances.

    These recordings were made over a span of some 2 Ĺ years and were originally issued by ASV on five single CDs. Originally each disc contained one mass accompanied by other pieces by Fayrfax including antiphons directly related to the mass setting in question. Collectors who buy this set will therefore miss out in terms of completeness but they need not feel they are being short changed for what we have on these discs is a feast of Tudor polyphony in performances which could scarcely be bettered. Moreover, as we shall see, the present issue includes a "bonus" not originally contained in the first release.

    Who was Robert Fayrfax? As David Skinner tells us in his admirable notes (which are scholarly and comprehensive but eminently readable), it is thought that he was born in rural Lincolnshire in 1464. His early life is rather obscure but by December1497 he is recorded as being one of the Gentlemen of the Chapel Royal. In this capacity he sang at a number of important royal occasions including the coronation of Henry VIII in 1509. In addition to this royal appointment he was connected with St. Albanís Abbey and is believed to have been Informator chori there from at least 1511.It may well be that the Missa Albanus was written for the Abbey (certainly the title is suggestive).

    The five masses here recorded represent the surviving compositions by Fayrfax in this genre. Each consists of settings of the Gloria, Credo, Sanctus./Benedictus and Agnus Dei. There exist two manuscript sources for the music, one of which is the Lambeth Choirbook. This was likely to have been in use at Arundel College, Sussex after ca1524. Fittingly these recordings were made in what was then the chapel of that college, now a part of the Castle. The engineers have captured the sound of the choir most truthfully within this lovely acoustic.

    The membership of The Cardinallís Musick fluctuates between the various recordings. The choral forces are broadly similar, usually consisting of three each of sopranos, male altos, tenors and basses. All but the Missa Albanus also uses three baritones. The inclusion of female voices on the top line, while it may offend die-hard purists seems to me entirely justified and successful. They impart an ethereal purity to an ensemble which is excellently blended throughout. The whole set is characterised by imaginative attention to dynamic shading and Andrew Carwood, who conducts all the performances, sustains the tension admirably. There is plenty of appropriate rhythmic variety and the conclusions of the various Gloria and Credo settings are particularly exultant and thrilling. Carwood is, of course, a well-known singer himself and he imparts both a singerís understanding and a deep knowledge of the music to the phrasing.

    Within each mass the individual movements are beautifully shaped and Carwood and his singers build arch after arch of polyphony with consummate skill. All the strands of Fayrfaxís often complex writing register well.

    I mentioned a "bonus item". This is a short elevation motet, recently discovered in a manuscript copy of the Missa O bone Ihesu in Jena. The setting is incomplete, though not to such an extent as to inhibit reconstruction. It has now been edited for performance by David Skinner and is included very appropriately within the Sanctus of this mass at the point where it would have been heard in the liturgy. The piece is 145 bars long and, very enterprisingly ASV print the full music within the booklet.

    This issue is, I think, outstanding in every way. ASV has given us spellbinding performances of timeless music recorded with the utmost fidelity. As far as I am aware the music of Robert Fayrfax had lain largely forgotten until Carwood and Skinner and their expert singers brought it back to life with these invaluable recordings. In their sensitive hands these compositions speak to us again nearly 500 years after they were first written.

    A prodigious achievement, urgently recommended to all those who care about the English choral tradition.

    John Quinn


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