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1605: Treason & Dischord - William Byrd and the Gunpowder Plot
John DOWLAND (1563-1626)
George Whitehead's Almand [01:30]
William BYRD (1543-1623)
Mass for 4 voices: Kyrie [01:57]
A Fancie [04:32]
Mass for 4 voices: Gloria [05:56]
Richard DERING (c.1580-1630)
Ardens est cor meum [02:39]
William BYRD
Civitas sancti tui [05:07]
Peter PHILIPS (1560/61-1628)
Ave Maria gratia plena [02:11]
William BYRD
Mass for 4 voices: Credo [07:59]
John DOWLAND
Sir Henry Umpton's Funeral [04:21]
Thomas WEELKES (c.1576-1623)
O Lord how joyful is the King [08:25]
William BYRD
From Virgin's womb/Rejoice, rejoice [02:07]
John DOWLAND
M. Bucton's Galliard [01:20]
William BYRD
Mass for 4 voices: Sanctus - Benedictus [03:54]
Francis POTT (b.1957)
Master Tresham: His Ducke [13:54]
William BYRD
Mass for 4 voices: Agnus Dei [03:30]
The King's Singers (David Hurley, Robin Tyson, alto; Paul Phoenix, tenor; Philip Lawson, Christopher Gabbitas, baritone; Stephen Connolly, bass)
Concordia (Mark Levy, Susanne Heinrich, Emilia Benjamin, Reiko Ichise, Joanna Levine, viols; David Miller, lute)
Sarah Baldock, organ
rec. March 2005, St Andrews Church, Toddington, UK. DDD
SIGNUM SIGCD061 [69:21]

 

The British love their traditions. One of these is the searching of the cellars of the Palace of Westminster, prior to the 'State Opening of Parliament'. Only when they haven't found any explosives does the Queen enter the Houses of Parliament in order to deliver 'the Queen's Speech'. This tradition refers to an event in 1605 which shook the country, and which is known as the 'Gunpowder Plot'.

Queen Elizabeth had died in 1603, and the Catholics had hoped her successor, James I, would change the attitude of the government toward Catholicism. But they were disappointed, and some decided it was time to take action. A plan was made to blow up the Houses of Parliament, which would kill the King and of course many Members of Parliament. But during the preparations some of the plotters got cold feet, and some may also have realised that those parliamentarians who were on their side, would be killed too. One of the plotters sent an anonymous letter which reached the King, who took measures to stop the conspirators. On 5 November the cellars of the Houses of Parliament were stormed, where Guy Fawkes and barrels of gunpowder were found. Fawkes and his co-conspirators was arrested and executed.

The programme on this disc has been put together at the occasion of the fourth centenary of this event. The King's Singers have chosen compositions by composers from both sides of the religious spectrum, and commissioned a new composition by the British composer Francis Pott. The choice is rather unbalanced: Byrd, Dowland, Philips and Dering were all Catholics, and Weelkes is the only composer in the programme who was of Protestant conviction.

The problem with this recording is that most of the music isn't connected in any way to the 'Gunpowder Plot' itself. The main exception is Francis Pott's composition, and also Thomas Weelkes' anthem 'O Lord, how joyful is the King', which was headed with the words "for the fifth of November", and was apparently written for the annual services of thanksgiving for the failure of the plot. In the booklet John Milsom sheds some light on the religious convictions of the composers on the programme, but unfortunately he also speculates about their view on the plot, which we don't know anything about. As if that is not enough, the booklet contains an essay by Deborah Mackay, 'The Powder Treason - A script in the persona of William Byrd', which describes the turbulence of those years through the eyes of William Byrd - again, completely fictional. It escapes me in what way writings of this kind really help the listener to understand the context of the music. And a comparison between 1605 and '9/11' - the terrorist attacks in the USA - as in Francis Pott's commentary on his work, is a pretty risky business, and is mostly based on a rather superficial understanding of the historical context of both events.

Let us forget the booklet and concentrate on the music. The thread of the programme is Byrd's four-part setting of the Mass Ordinary. It was one of three mass settings which Byrd had written between 1592 and 1595. Although Byrd was privileged in that he was able to compose and even publish music for the Catholic liturgy, his publisher didn't want to take any risks, and printed the masses without title page. It is likely that Byrd's masses were performed as part of the services in the home of Sir John Petrie, leader of the Catholic community in Stoudon Massey in Essex, where Byrd had moved to in 1603. From this perspective the rather intimate atmosphere of this recording is very appropriate. The performance by the King's Singers is very good, but it seems to me the entrance of 'Et resurrexit' in the Credo is too abrupt and too dramatic. The second work by Byrd is his motet 'Civitas sancti tui', whose very sombre character ("Thy holy city is made desolate. Sion is wasted and brought low, Jerusalem desolate and void") is captured perfectly.

In Thomas Weelkes' anthem 'O Lord, how joyful is the King' we find a wholly different atmosphere, which comes through very well in the performance. Richard Dering and Peter Philips went abroad for religious reasons. Dering visited Italy, and his motet 'Ardens cor meum' bears the marks of the Italian style of the early 17th century, in particular in its declamatory character, which isn't fully exploited here. Concordia delivers fine performances of consort pieces by another Catholic, John Dowland.

Lastly, 'Master Tresham: His Ducke' by Francis Pott. The title is a clear reference to the Elizabethan era. Pott uses texts from the 'Emblematum liber' (Book of Emblems) by Andrea Alciato, published in Augsburg in 1531, as well as verses from the Bible and fragments from the official record of the interrogation of Guy Fawkes and the Agnus Dei from the Mass. In addition Byrd's motet 'Civitas sanct tui' is quoted. The work starts off as an Elizabethan consort piece, but when the singers enter the style changes drastically. As I have no knowledge of contemporary music whatsoever, I can't say anything about this composition's merits. I'm limiting myself to saying that it doesn't appeal to me in any way.

I'm in two minds about this disc. If I try to forget the booklet and concentrate on the music, there is certainly a lot to enjoy, but if I am going to play this disc again, I'll skip Francis Pott's piece. That leaves only 55 minutes of early music, most - probably all - of which is available in other recordings. In particular Byrd's Mass has been recorded frequently. Those who are open to contemporary music have to find out for themselves whether Pott's composition is their cup of tea.

Johan van Veen

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