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.
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
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.
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
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) Gibbons’ Long
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
Bennet’s All creatures now are merry-minded is
deservedly one of the best known madrigals in this collection.
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.
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.
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.
Holmes’ Thus 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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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,
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!