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Thomas WEELKES (c.1576-1623)
Ninth Service, Evening Service and Anthems

Alleluia, I heard a voice [2:56]
Give ear, O Lord* [5:31]
Evening Service for five voices:
Magnificat [6:20]
Nunc Dimittis [3:10]
Hosanna to the Son of David [1:51]
When David Heard [4:56]
O Lord, Grant the King a Long Life [2:01]
Give the King Thy Judgements+ [5:31]
Gloria in Excelsis Deo [3:01]
Ninth Service:
Magnificat [8:37]
Nunc Dimittis [6:48]
Stephen Carter* +, Richard Roberts* (altos); Andrew Carwood* (tenor);
Christ Church Cathedral Choir, Oxford/Stephen Darlington
rec. Dorchester Abbey, Oxon., England, 13-14 March 1988. DDD.
Texts included.
NIMBUS NI5125 [50:42]

Experience Classicsonline

 


Poor old Thomas Weelkes does not even rate a separate entry in the current Penguin Guide or Gramophone Guide. Nor do any Nimbus recordings feature in either publication, though the company has now been back on its feet for several years. Does this mean that the present recording is not worth hearing? Not a bit of it – Weelkes is rather an under-rated composer but his music is well worth hearing – it’s more a sad reflection of the fact that neither of these guides is as useful as they used to be.

If you look up Weelkes in the musical textbooks, you will find a variety of opinions – ranging from the common view that his madrigals are well worth hearing but his church music is too conventionally Anglican to be of any value, to that expressed in the notes to this Nimbus CD, that the thrilling textures, ravishing sonorities, exhilarating rhythms and marvellously spicy harmonies have won his music a secure place in the cathedral repertory. He was a controversial figure in his own day, dismissed by the authorities at Chichester Cathedral for drunkenness, swearing and blasphemy, and the value of his music continues to be questioned.

Perhaps the problem for us as listeners and for Weelkes himself is that the Anglican choral tradition had already become too secure and comfortable by his time. Maybe he threw over the traces because he was bored. Several of the cadences on this recording sound rather routine, as if concocted from ingredients which Byrd and others had already prepared.

While Weelkes may not be my desert-island choice among Tudor and Jacobean composers – Tallis and Byrd would, of course head that list and Weelkes’s contemporary Orlando Gibbons would be on it – I certainly would not wish to be without him. Certainly, if I went to Choral Evensong in Christ Church and heard one of these anthems sung as well as they are on this recording, occasional fluffs apart, which did not worry me, I should think the journey had been well worth making.

There are two budget-price competitors. A recording from the Oxford Camerata directed by Jeremy Summerly (Naxos 8.553209) contains six of the anthems on the present recording. Honours overall are about even between Darlington and Summerly, bearing in mind the usual swings-and-roundabouts distinction between boy trebles as against experienced adult professional singers and the difference in sizes between the two ensembles – there are more boy choristers in the Christ Church Choir than the total membership of the Oxford Camerata on this recording.

A recent reissue on the Hyperion Helios label (CDH55259) offers the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis from Weelkes’s Evening Service for trebles, coupled with twelve anthems, six of them in common with those on the Nimbus recording. This recording has recently been well received on Musicweb (see review); the combination of Winchester Cathedral Choir and David Hill is almost a guarantee of its quality. As Weelkes held an appointment at Winchester College, though not at the Cathedral so far as is known, a Winchester recording of his music is especially appropriate.

Five anthems occur on all three recordings. Those who want the Ninth Service canticles (Nimbus only) the Evening Service for trebles (Hyperion only) and A remembrance of my friend Thomas Morley, a most strikingly original piece (Naxos only) – all well worth hearing – will, therefore, find themselves with a considerable number of duplications.

The first two anthems on this Nimbus CD neatly juxtapose the two sides of Weelkes’s music, the lively and the meditative, the latter usually less conventional and more interesting than the former. In Alleluia, I heard a voice, though the Winchester choristers take the work at a faster speed, which might seem more appropriate, the Christ Church version is all that one could wish for. Summerly takes it a good deal more slowly than either, stressing the majestic and declamatory aspect of the words and music rather than their sheer joyfulness of this Eastertide or Ascensiontide work. (One manuscript ascribes it to All Saints Day, which also seems possible.)

In Give ear, O Lord, Darlington is again slower than Hill, thereby achieving a fine, affective performance of this plea for God’s mercy. The Oxford Camerata are again slower than either: I should prefer their version were it not for the fact that the Christ Church soloists sing so beautifully yet blend so harmoniously with the rest of the choir.

In Hosanna to the Son of David, the three versions adopt a very similar tempo. Here I do have a definite preference for Summerly – more sprightly yet not lacking in dignity.

When David Heard and Give the King thy Judgements see fairly extreme disagreements over tempo, with Darlington the slowest in both. Summerly, though considerably faster, still manages to capture the affective quality of David’s lament for his son Absalom in this piece probably composed to mark the death of King James’s son Henry. Free from comparison, however, Darlington’s versions of both pieces stand up well, the soloists in Give the King as effective and well integrated with the rest of the choir as was the case in Give Ear.

It is not at all clear why Weelkes wrote Gloria in Excelsis Deo, since this bilingual piece duplicates much of the Gloria sung at the end of Holy Communion in the 1559 rite, but could not properly be substituted for it owing to variations in the text. Presumably it was a Christmas anthem, which is how it is performed on An Elizabethan Chorus, music for various occasions in the church’s year sung by St Paul’s Cathedral Choristers directed by Grayston Burgess, with a youthful Andrew Davis at the organ. This very interesting anthology of music by Byrd and Weelkes, with readings from the Elizabethan Bishops’ Bible, which last surfaced on a budget-price recording (Belart 450 141-2), though apparently no longer available, is well worth searching out. Perhaps Arkiv would like to add it to their catalogue?

If nothing else, that Grayston Burgess recording demonstrated that the Weelkes pieces included there, Hosanna to the Son of David, Gloria in Excelsis Deo, O Lord Arise and Alleluia, I heard a voice, can hold their heads up in the company of Byrd’s music.

Darlington’s lively performance of Gloria in Excelsis, slightly faster than Hill’s, would have made a good conclusion to the recording, though the programme has a logic of its own, ending as it does with Nunc Dimittis, the last canticle of the final office of the day.

O Lord Grant the King sounds rather uninspired by comparison with Byrd’s O Lord Make Thy Servant Elizabeth and the five-part Evening Service is also mainly unadventurous, though it contains some unconventional moments. The Ninth Service, a large-scale setting probably composed for the Chapel Royal, in the tradition of Byrd’s Great Service, is a worthy successor to that great predecessor. These two canticles form a fitting conclusion to the CD and serve as a foil to the simpler settings of the same canticles from the five-part Evening Service earlier on the disc. The Ninth Service Nunc Dimittis is unusually lengthy and elaborate – even longer than Byrd’s in the Great Service – with some adventurous harmonies.

Both services had to be edited, as the surviving parts are highly defective; David Wulstan’s editions are employed here. Notwithstanding my slight preference for the Oxford Camerata versions of some pieces, for these four works alone the Christ Church recording is well worth having. As far as I am aware, it is the only available recording to contain them and the performances are all good.

The Nimbus recording is somewhat less immediate than that on their Taverner CD which I recently reviewed (NI5360 – see review) and even less immediate than that on their Sheppard recording (NI5480 – see review). For the current recording the volume needed a 4 or 5 dB boost before it began to sound natural, and even then the sound was rather more recessed than I should have liked. Perhaps the Ambisonic UHJ encoding is part of the problem. The separation between the two sides of the choir, Decani and Cantoris, is well conveyed.

Anthony Rooley, with the Consort of Musicke (Gaudeamus CDGAU195 - see review) offers a wholly recommendable selection of Weelkes’s Madrigals and Anthems. This CD, though apparently no longer available, is worth looking out for – some dealers may still have a copy.

Hosanna to the Son of David and Gloria in Excelsis are included on a recent mid-price set of hearteningly committed performances of Great Tudor Anthems (GCCD 4053 – see review ).

A CD of Verse Anthems from Bull to Boyce (Deux-Elles DXL853 - see review ), containing Weelkes’s Give ear) is also well worth investigating.

The scores of several of Weelkes’s anthems may be found online.

Brian Wilson

 

 

 


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