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The Triumphs of Oriana (1601)
Michael EAST (c. 1580-1648)
Hence, stars, too dim of light [1:40]
Daniel NORCOMBE (?1576-1655)
With angel’s face and brightness [2:05]
John MUNDY (c. 1555-1630)
Lightly she whipped o’er the dales [2:57]
Ellis GIBBONS (1573-?1603)
Long live fair Oriana [2:40]
John BENNET (c. 1575/80, fl. 1599-1614)
All creatures now are merry-minded [1:54]
John HILTON the elder (c. 1560-1608)
Fair Oriana, beauty’s queen [2:02]
George MARSON (c. 1573-1632)
The nymphs and shepherds danced [2:39]
Richard CARLTON (c. 1558-?1638)
Calm was the air and clear the sky [3:43]
John HOLMES (?-1629)
Thus Bonny-boots the birthday celebrated [2:29]
Richard NICOLSON (1563-1639)
Sing, shepherds all, and in your roundelays [3:27]
Thomas TOMKINS (1572-1656)
The fauns and satyrs tripping [4:23]
Michael CAVENDISH (c. 1565-1628)
Come, gentle swains [3:04]
William COBBOLD (1560-1639)
With wreaths of rose and laurel [2:08]
Thomas MORLEY (1557/8-1602)
Arise, awake, awake [2:10]
John FARMER (c. 1570, fl. 1591-1601)
Fair nymphs, I heard one telling [2:23]
John WILBYE (1574-1638)
The Lady Oriana [2:23]
Thomas HUNT (1580-1658)
Hark! Did ye ever hear so sweet a singing? [3:01]
Thomas WEELKES (1575-1623)
As Vesta was from Latmos hill descending [3:02]
John MILTON (c. 1563-1647)
Fair Orion in the morn [2:13]
Ellis GIBBONS

Round about her charret [2:27]
George KIRBYE (?-1634)
Bright Phoebus greets most clearly [2:14]
Robert JONES (fl. 1597-1615)
Fair Oriana, seeming to wink at folly [2:54]
John LISLEY (fl. 1601)
Fair Cytherea presents her doves [3:38]
Thomas MORLEY
 
Hard by a crystal fountain [3:05]
Edward JOHNSON (fl. 1572-1601)
Come, blessed bird [2:30]
The King’s Singers: (David Hurley, Nigel Short (counter-tenors), Paul Phoenix (tenor), Philip Lawson, Gabriel Crouch (baritones), Simon Connolly (bass))
rec. Mandelsloh, St Osdag, Germany, 9-12 March 1998. DDD
SIGNUM CLASSICS SIGCD082 [67:13]
 

 

Can you name 23 Elizabethan composers? Easily? Well, now look carefully at the heading. I wonder if even Thomas Morley, who put together the publication The triumphs of Oriana recorded complete here, could have easily done so before the event.
 
Was this musical festschrift meant more to be an impressive honour as a publication than actually heard at a sitting? It doesn’t follow a coherent storyline but is just a collection of madrigals complimenting Elizabeth as Oriana with various references to idyllic pastoral and fairyland. Were 23 composers engaged today on such a project it’d be prime time television stuff, one being voted out every week until a winner was found. You could say, in contrast to today’s competitiveness, the common cause of praise is refreshing. But all madrigals had to end setting the couplet ‘Then sang the shepherds and nymphs of Diana: / Long live fair Oriana.’ though the first line was sometimes slightly varied. So there’s something of a competition there too. Are the little known names real finds or deservedly obscure? Does the class of the better known composers tell?
 
This CD, then, can potentially provide you with 23 weeks of listening, gradually eliminating, until you arrive at a top madrigal. Here are some tips from me, presented, like the disc, in order of publication. And I write with regard to how these works stand out not technically but in the King’s Singers’ performances.
 
You might think the first, Michael East’s Hence, stars, too dim of light is deemed worthy of special place, but it only got there because it arrived at the last minute when the printer had done the rest. Actually it makes a good, terse introduction to the world of the madrigal. Plain statements, like the opening ‘Hence stars’ sung together by all five vocal parts, are followed by those same voices niftily imitating one another, firstly with the text ‘you dazzle but the sight’ (tr. 1 0:06). Those frothy bits are the main interest until the slightly firmer, attractively pealing refrain ‘Long live fair Oriana’.
 
In Daniel Norcombe’s With angel’s face and brightness the emphasis on angel’s face is soon linked to Oriana and his refrain has a more resonating peal. John Mundy’s Lightly she whipped o’er the dales is deftly imitative for those words but gets rather bogged down with the voices, largely together for a long stretch midway through, until that closing refrain has a broader spanned peal of the kind you’d find in sacred music of the time. That closing style is similarly found in Ellis (brother of Orlando) GibbonsLong live fair Oriana, a work which saves its most elaborate imitation for that point. Earlier it gives more emphasis to slow-moving harmony as it meditates with concentration on ‘did you ever hear so sweet a singing?’ (tr. 4 0:16). Well, quite nicely evoked, but the answer is often and more.
 
John Bennet’s All creatures now are merry-minded is deservedly one of the best known madrigals in this collection. It’s catchy and goes with a continuous swing. The words are always clearly set with a real zest and the occasional appropriate extravagance, such as the twelve running quavers as the birds ‘hover’ (tr. 5 0:41). There’s never a dull moment and this is the first King’s Singers performance on this disc where a rich bass is evident. The refrain here is of the slow peal variety.
 
John Hilton’s Fair Oriana, beauty’s queen has a comely, serene opening and light imitation thereafter with lively cross-rhythms but the very slow peal of its refrain seems a little over the top. George Marson’s The nymphs and shepherds danced is more diffuse in imitation, its refrain quietly reflective before a more sonorous ending.
 
More interesting, however, is Richard Carlton’s Calm was the air and clear the sky. He conjures up a rarefied scene over which Oriana seems to float until at ‘Ida plains’ there’s only a scrunching semitone between second counter-tenor and tenor (baritone in this recording at tr. 8 0:37). Overall this is a piece of fairly rapt homage with a ravishing breadth of line in the refrain. It deserves to be better known.
 
John HolmesThus Bonny-boots the birthday celebrated begins rather abruptly but then settles into stylish dancing, only pausing to gaze on ‘Fair Oriana’. This is fine word-setting. The refrain places a light tracery of four voices against one with sustained notes, the actual sustained voice varied now and again. A virtuoso setting, which again uses techniques from sacred music which in this performance seem totally and freshly secularized.
 
Richard Nicolson’s Sing, shepherds all, and in your roundelays is a jollily tripping madrigal with chivalrous emphasis on ‘the gods above’ willing to join in the praise of Oriana. This is a soufflé of a madrigal, beautifully made, its refrain with a repeat to which the King’s Singers effectively give more edge.
 
Now enters the first of the four heavyweight Elizabethan composers represented in this collection, Thomas Tomkins, with The fauns and satyrs tripping and boy, do they trip. This is a quality setting of intensive word-painting, so you can enjoy ‘fresh cool brooks’ tantalizingly displayed in delicate imitation and the equally ‘nimbly skipping’ of toes before a moment of still homage at ‘My fair queen’. The vocal parts disport in intricately varied combinations climaxing in a peal to celebrate the Queen’s life, wealth and fame that it ‘may be eternal’ before a refrain which is by contrast cast in the form of a prayer.
 
The gentle homage of Michael Cavendish’s Come, gentle swains has a softly, softly approach throughout. Though musically it does nothing special, the mood and tone this creates are very satisfying. A kind of ‘Ah, bless her’ and him, effect.
 
William Cobbold’s With wreaths of rose and laurel starts in similar vein but livens up for ‘the swift beasts running’ in cascades of quavers and then exults as the leaping exhortation ‘Prepare yourselves’ traverses the voice parts before a real tour de force of an ingeniously pealing refrain.
 
Elizabethan heavyweight number 2 now arrives in Thomas Morley’s Arise, awake. The setting just of those two opening words illustrates the piece’s characteristic deft, rapid contrast of slow and quick music.
 
The remaining madrigals are all written for sic voices. In John Farmer’s Fair nymphs, I heard one telling what is actually telling is the denser moments of homage, not so much the slightly over-complex imitation. Now the third heavyweight, John Wilbye, enters with The Lady Oriana. This time the density is put to the service of florid counterpoint which conjures up ‘the treasures of Guiana’ adorning the Lady. It also finds Wilbye more interested in showing off the completion of a crowning than the crowning itself because ‘Which ceremony ended’ lends itself more readily to tripping quaver descents.
 
Thomas Hunt certainly supplies an arresting opening for Hark! Did ye ever hear so sweet a singing? with cries of Hark rapidly flitting through the parts reminiscent of those Elizabethan settings of street cries and a decorous continuation which makes the question a fairer one than it was in the case of Ellis Gibbons. With similar confidence ‘most excellently fitted’ parades majestically in imitation. However the chief interest of this madrigal is harmonic with one part occasionally crunching just a semitone distance from another, for example at tr. 17 0:36.
 
Next the fourth and final heavyweight, Thomas Weelkes, with As Vesta was from Latmos hill descending, an unpromising title but glorious text for a word-painting extravaganza. In succession we get descending, ascending, running down, all imitatively matched; then 2 by 2, 3 by 3, together, alone, all matched with the appropriate number of parts. That last ‘leaving their goddess all alone’(tr. 18 1:22) is the only independent melodic solo in the entire set and a moment of extraordinary isolation. The simplicity of it works well but the skill also lies in the plainer interlinking statements with just enough contrapuntal decoration to be distinctive, delivered by the King’s Singers with lilting relish. The refrain has the most memorable, catchy, often repeated ‘Long live fair Oriana’ motif over a sustained cantus firmus bass. This is impressive stuff as performed here, no doubt partly because this is the best known and most performed madrigal of the set. And it’s still, by some margin, the finest.
 
Which I’m afraid leaves John Milton’s neat imitation in Fair Orion, in the morn something of an anti-climax. It’s more curious to learn this is the work of the poet Milton’s father. Much the same can be said of Ellis Gibbons’ second contribution, Round about her charret, which is no more remarkable than his first.
 
With five more to go we’re on the home straight now. George Kirbye’s Bright Phoebus greets most clearly was in later editions published with the text of Norcombe’s madrigal though both Kirbye’s texts have the same blazing fast acclamations ‘fair Oriana’ (tr. 21 0:09) echoed in the refrain’s closing peal. Robert Jones’ Fair Oriana, seeming to wink at folly treads a calm, lightly imitative path which becalms ‘softly down a sleeping’ to reveal Oriana weeping and sighing at the unholy mess the world has got into. The King’s Singers show great reverence for the text and thereby the subject in this setting which is comparable to Carlton’s madrigal in the appeal of its unusual character, not least in the change of mood of its surprisingly tripping refrain.
 
John Lisley’s Fair Cytherea presents her doves is more fascinating still. It’s the only madrigal in the set to have both its body and refrain fully repeated. There’s a feel of the antique about it with slightly exotic harmonies favoured. It has an atmosphere of stillness with only gentle imitation. It closes in rarefied manner. There’s something magical about this one, especially when the King’s Singers repeat the refrain more softly.
 
Now Thomas Morley’s second contribution, Hard by a crystal fountain, gushes forth fast and deft with a light, tripping refrain. And last of all, Edward Johnson’s Come, blessed bird turns out to incorporate a lament for the Bonny-boots who heads Holmes’ madrigal. This one has a growingly intense refrain.
 
So where does that leave us? I suggest with three categories. First, seven madrigals which stand out for their quality or distinctiveness: those by Bennet, Carlton, Holmes, Tomkins, Weelkes, Jones and Lisley. Second, the madrigals which are skilfully fashioned but not otherwise especially distinctive: those by East, Nicolson, Cavendish, Cobbold, Morley, Wilbye and Hunt. Third, the also-rans.
 
I’ve concentrated on the music because the King’s Singers’ performances are of uniform transparency, smooth blend and rhythmic acuity. If you were going to have a contest to give every composer a fair chance you couldn’t choose a better ensemble: because their style is so homogeneous. The distinctiveness that emerges is that of the individual pieces of music. The recording was made in 1998 for WDR and has a pleasingly intimate but not too glowing ambience. It was previously released in a limited edition in 2002.
 
Now I’m going to take my seven best choice and make a comparison with the other complete set currently available, that recorded in 2000 by I Fagiolini (Chandos Chaconne CHAN0682). Their Bennet is brighter owing to the use of two sopranos and counter-tenor for the upper three parts. Their sound is consequently less smooth but more piquant both in the upper parts and in the clarity of harmony. They make what I’d call a more classic madrigal sound and sing at what is arguably more authentic pitch. The King’s Singers, because they have counter-tenors and tenor on the upper lines, sing the madrigal, as they do most, a third lower, with a lighter tone but more rhythmic excitement. You can hear this in the way they bring out the tripping quavers at ‘The nymphs are fa-la-la-ing’ (tr. 5 0:17). The timings are virtually the same, with I Fagiolini at 1:50 just four seconds faster than the King’s Singers.
 
But there’s a marked difference in timing in the Carlton, with I Fagiolini at 3:04 against the King’s Singers 3:43. I think the latter’s more sedate tempo better suits the contemplative savouring of the piece. I Fagiolini’s two sopranos bring a pearlier quality to ‘Where heaven-born sisters’ yet for this sustained peak in the first soprano part the King’s Singers, in this piece singing just a tone lower, supply a sudden burning intensity (tr. 8 0:41). Theirs is the smoother, more velvety phrasing, though the Satyrs and Nymphs at 1:23 rather sleepwalk a dance which I Fagiolini show really has a more lively rhythm. The King’s Singers will do nothing to disturb the chaste mood which culminates in a wonderful realization of the melodic arcs and subtle growth of intensity of the refrain.
 
Again in the Holmes the King’s Singers at 2:29 are more measured than I Fagiolini at 2:14 and again to the work’s advantage. I Fagiolini present a piping birthday celebration which is also intimate and refined, especially the almost whispering start of the refrain. The King’s Singers display more vividly a lightness of lilting progression with a magical sense of reverence and homage by the scrupulously weighted rhythm and phrasing of ‘Fair Oriana’ (tr. 9 0:25), which can thereafter be observed and savoured in successive phrases. The way their refrain develops the cumulating counterpoint is like a throng of nymphs and shepherds gradually adding their acclamation.
 
With the Tomkins it’s the King’s Singers at 4:23 who are quicker than I Fagiolini by 7 seconds. I Fagiolini’s account allows you to enjoy the quick rhythms crossing between the parts but the contrasting calmer phrases are less distinctly shaped than the King’s Singers. I Fagiolini are expressive but slightly studied, especially in their thoughtful, even pensive refrain. The King’s Singers demonstrate lighter tripping and sprung rhythms. The ideal pacing of ‘fresh cool brooks’ (tr. 11 0:21) echoing through the parts gives the effect of a gurgling stream. Again there’s a hushed obeisance to join in their wonder at ‘My fair Queen’ (1:03). Their more satisfying close is founded on the firmness of statement ‘Her life, her wealth, her fame may be eternal’ (2:16) which becomes more positive as it progresses and sets up a refrain which is now confident, now adoring.
 
There’s agreement in the timing of the Weelkes. I Fagiolini are chatty, eager and lithe, delighting in the descents and effects. They show the individual parts’ rhythmic embellishments with wonderful clarity and their refrain is a peal which really does snowball in excitement. The King’s Singers have a more sophisticated smoothness. With equal rhythmic strength and clarity they achieve a denser texture but don’t have quite as much bite. Their refrain is dazzling but less exciting. Not so, however, in their concert performance, without scores, on their 2005 DVD (Arthaus 101248). This is 22 seconds faster and the sheer pace and floridity are awesome. This latter is the present grouping, with second counter-tenor Robin Tyson and second baritone Christopher Gabbitas.
 
In the Jones I Fagiolini at 2:21 show worldly-wise wry humour. The skipping opening and thrust on ‘wink’ suit the title and the refrain is of a really snappy gambolling. The King’s Singers at 2:54 are more reserved. Their winking is courtly: they’re more interested in the sheer innocent beauty of the sheeny descents in the parts at ‘lay softly down’ (tr. 22 0:27) and make more of the continuous imitation of ‘she sighed’ (1:21). Their refrain skips lively enough but without snap and the overall emphasis on style is sealed by a softening at the close like a rosy sunset.
 
In the Lisley the timings are more divergent still. I Fagiolini skip through at 2:30. This is mercurial but the King’s Singers at 3:38 allow the harmonies to have more observable effect as well as the text to be more clearly articulated.
 
The more I listen to these King’s Singers performances, the more I admire their breathtaking virtuosity. Another way of putting this would be to say they appear never to need to draw breath. And the King’s Singers bring these madrigals to life with an altogether broader range and perspective than the exquisiteness of a Nicholas Hilliard miniature.
 
The problem for me about The Triumphs of Oriana isn’t the 25 same refrains. Indeed the refrain means a welcome change of tone from the body of the madrigal and, because the words are almost taken as given, the focus becomes the ingenious display of contrapuntal technique. The problem is the perplexing range of quality of the music. So my categorization, which I’m not attempting to rank other than giving Weelkes top honours, has its serious side. And you mightn’t agree with it. So play the game yourself. It’s well worth the effort!
 
Michael Greenhalgh
 

 



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