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Elizabethan Christmas Anthems
Red Byrd; The Rose Consort of Viols
rec. Forde Abbey, November, 1989. DDD.
Booklet with notes but no texts.
AMON RA CD-SAR46 [59:23]

Experience Classicsonline


Orlando GIBBONS (1583-1625) Verse Anthem: This is the Record of John [3:39]
William BYRD (1542-1623) Christe qui lux es (instrumental setting) [1:19]
Thomas TOMKINS (1572-1676) Verse Anthem: Sing Unto God [6:07]
Martin PEERSON (1580-1650) Upon my Lap [4:31]
William BYRD Fantasy 2 in 1 (à5) [5:52]
John AMNER (d.1641) Verse Anthem: O Ye Little Flock [5:45]
William BYRD Fantasy Browning [4:16]
Anthony HOLBORNE (d.1602) Consort Song: Sweet was the Song the Virgin Sung [2:09]
Pavan The Cradle; Galliard Lullabie [5:10]

William BYRD Consort Song Lullaby [5;19]
Orlando GIBBONS In Nomine [4:53]
Verse Anthem: See, see, the Word is Incarnate [5:41]

In the 17th century it was common for households with the requisite number of musicians and the finances to afford a consort of viols to entertain themselves with music for viols. These were supplemented by consort songs and verse anthems. It might seem strange to us, but it was perfectly common for domestic performances to mix sacred and secular music. These verse anthems were designed for small-scale use and though sacred were not originally intended to be liturgical. In fact, playing viols in a cold church is not ideal and when verse anthems did move into the church, they were often accompanied by organ.

This disc from Red Byrd and the Rose Consort of Viols intends to re-create the sort of domestic music-making that might have taken place in the early 17th century. It was recorded, in 1989, in the domestic situation of Forde Abbey in Dorset. The texts of the songs and anthems tell the Christmas story, and instrumental pieces have been interspersed amongst the vocal numbers.

A number of Red Byrdís recordings from this period experiment with period pronunciation of the text. I had always understood that Elizabethan English would have been closest to the contemporary Ulster accent. On this disc the singer of Red Byrd adopts, with varying degrees of success, a rather West Country Ďmummersetí accent, perhaps inspired by the location of the recording venue.

This is most pronounced in the opening item, This is the Record of John, where the tenor soloist adopts an alarmingly uncompromising accent. Though the singers are credited, no soloists are specified, so I can only assume that the tenor on this track is John Potter. His accent, combined with the rather flowing tempo, means that this interpretation is worlds away from the slow reverence of a church performance, and that is presumably what was intended. Whilst you may not always like the decisions taken by the performers, the results are nothing if not refreshing.

Tomkinsís Sing unto God, sets verses from Psalm 68 in quite a dramatic style. The solo bass part - presumably Richard Wistreich - is quite wide-ranging and challenges Wistreich at both ends of his range.

The texts used for verse anthems were many and varied. John Amnerís O Ye Little Flock turns to a paraphrase of St. Luke, which is set in such a way as to use different soloists to dramatise the story. It must be said that once beyond the first track, the accents become rather less uncompromising and rather more acceptable; though one or two of the singers have trouble remaining consistent. There are hints of standard received pronunciation breaking through - many listeners will find this a relief, I suspect.

John Bullís lovely Starre Anthem leaves the Bible behind and sets a Collect, using a lovely variety of vocal textures to characterize the work. The final Verse anthem is Gibbonsí See, see, the Word is Incarnate, which sets a religious poem. Gibbons carefully increases the intensity verse by verse until the glorious final chorus Ďwhere all the choir of heaven all jointly singí.

Amongst these verse anthems are distributed a number of lovely consort songs such as the anonymous Sweet was the song the virgin sung and Byrdís Lullaby. Their texts reflect the general theme of the disc. The instrumental numbers are less directly relevant, but provide a lovely contrast to the vocal items especially when given in lively and appealing performances as here.

There are no texts provided, just an illuminating article by two members of the Rose Consort of Viols. In fact the diction is so good that you hardly need to consult a printed text.

In many ways this disc rather shows its age, especially with the attempts at period accent in the sung items. But the musicianship and scholarship are of such a high order and the performances so vivid and infectious that it would still make a charming Christmas present.

Robert Hugill

see also reviews by Brian Wilson and Johan van Veen




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