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A Garland of the Elizabethan
John BENNETT
(c. 1575 – ?) All creatures now; Weep, O mine eyes
John FARMER (c. 1560 - ?) A little pretty bonny lass; Fair Phyllis I saw sitting
John WILBYE(1574 - 1638) Lady when I beheld; Adieu sweet Amaryllis
Thomas WEELKES (1575 - 1623) Since Robin Hood
Richard John Samuel STEVENS (1757 - 1837) Ye spotted snakes; Doubt that the stars
William SHIELD (1748 - 1829) Poor Barbara
William HORSLEY (1774 - 1858) Slow fresh fount
Traditional arr. John COTTON Drink to me only
Franz SCHUBERT (1797 - 1858) arr. John COTTON Hark! Hark! The lark; Who is Silvia?
Charles GOUNOD (1818 - 1893) arr. John COTTON My true love
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872 - 1958) arr. John COTTON Orpheus with his lute
Francis POULENC (1899 - 1963) arr. John COTTON Fancie
William WALTON (1902 - 1983) arr. John COTTON Under the greenwood tree
Richard PANTCHEFF (b. 1959) Five Elizabethan lyrics
The Clerks of Christ Church (John Cotton, Tom King, Adrian Lowe, Brian Chapman, Angus Wilson, William Gaunt)
rec. 20-22 February 2004, The Chapel of St. Edward’s School, Oxford
SOMM SOMMCD 047 [62.07]

The English glee was generally a domestic affair. They were written for communal singing in the home and in taverns. Larger Glee Clubs did flourish, but the musical material was generally of modest quality, though the results can be appealing when well done. Glees were mainly sung by men, so this tradition meshes in well with another tradition, that of the adult male members of Cathedral Choirs providing alternative, lighter entertainment.
 
The Clerks of Christ Church was formed in 2001. It is made up of current and previous members of Christ Church Cathedral choir. On this disc the group consists of two counter-tenors (John Cotton and Tom King), two tenors (Adrian Lowe and Brian Chapman), a baritone (Angus Wilson) and a bass (William Gaunt).
 
The disc is themed around settings of Elizabethan poetry. The Clerks start with a group of Elizabethan madrigals followed by a group of glees. Then follows a group settings of Shakespeare by well known composers, Schubert, Gounod, Vaughan Williams, Poulenc, Walton, all in arrangements by John Cotton. Finally they perform the Five Elizabethan lyrics by Richard Pantcheff, an ex-Christ Church undergraduate and a keen supporter of the group.
 
The madrigals are all sung transposed down and work well, partly because of the outstanding bass of William Gaunt. He has a wonderful dark voice and is capable of singing with a fine sense of line, even at the low pitches. I was less convinced by the voices on the upper lines; the counter-tenors have useful, musical voices but of a timbre which seemed less suitable to such solo exposure. But counter-tenor voices are a very personal preference and it may be that others will like the group’s sound.
 
It is a testament to the lightness and verve that the Clerks bring to these madrigals that they never sound heavy. But whilst their delivery is light and vivid, the words just do not come over as well as I would have liked. Whilst these versions would not be my first choice for the library, they are lively and attractive and give us a fine picture of English domestic music-making of the period.
 
Because glees demand less, there is a danger that they will be more interesting to the performers than to the listener, but the Clerks have chosen and give us an enchanting anthology. Ye spotted snakes by R.J. Stevens (Gresham Professor of Music in London) is particularly apposite and wonderfully pointed. His Doubt that the stars with its haunting echo effects is rather moving and might even stand a choral performance. William Shield’s Poor Barbara is so wilfully perverse in its lively setting of the sad text as to be highly entertaining - John Cotton in his notes describes it as being almost a calypso.
 
Cotton describes his arrangements of songs by well-known composers as part-songs. But though he uses a multi-part texture, the subsidiary parts are generally sung to ah or nonsense syllables so I’m not really sure that the term part-song is completely correct. The results are discreet and effective, never overwhelming the original, but somehow Cotton succeeds in massaging the textures of the pieces so that the original composer’s own personality is diffused and not as distinct as one would hope. But perhaps that is the intention of the arrangements. Some people will find these pieces charming and apposite, others will simply ask why bother?
 
It is with the Five Elizabethan lyrics by Richard Pantcheff that the programme takes a leap upwards. Pantcheff’s style is basically tonal but he has a wonderful turn of melodic phrase using expressionist dissonance. The overall feeling is sharp and quite spiky modulated by a good feel for texture; but Pantcheff’s chromaticism is always in the service of the words. Pantcheff varies the texture of the pieces well, ranging from the quietly expressive opening of Beauty is but a painted hell to the lively dance rhythms of Hey nonny no. The set uses lyrics chosen by John Cotton; Dear, if you change from John Dowland’s ‘The First Booke of Songs or Ayres’, Hey nonny no from a manuscript held at Christ Church, Beauty is but a painted hell Thomas Campion’s ‘The Fourth Book of Ayres’, O stay, sweet love from John Farmer’s First Set of English Madrigals and Shall I come, sweet love, to thee from Thomas Campion’s ‘The Third Book of Ayres’.
 
With such a distinguished group of lyrics and with their strong links to Elizabethan/Jacobean music, it would have been easy for Pantcheff to have been overawed and to have produced music which was a pale copy of the Elizabethan. It is a testament to Pantcheff’s talent that he has taken his own path, providing a response to the poems which is always musical but sometimes unexpected.
 
This is a recital which deserves to be heard for Pantcheff’s settings of Elizabethan lyrics; the accompanying items are attractively done even if you might question their necessity in the programme.
 
Robert Hugill
 

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