In the same way that we have in recent times come to realize that
the Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre is not just Shakespeare we
are now gradually understanding that the music of that period
is not just Byrd and Dowland. Other composers, fine ones but little
known, were very active and two such were John Milton, father
of the great poet and Martin Peerson. Although contemporaries
they are also contrasting figures as we shall see.
now I had only known John Milton through a rather dull madrigal
he had submitted to Thomas Morley for the collection ‘The
Triumphs of Oriana’. Peerson curiously did not contribute
although some pieces by him can be found in the slightly later
‘FitzWilliam Virginal Book’.
Milton has never featured so strongly before on a CD but Martin
Peerson has had his moments in the sun with two discs I shall
mention. It is therefore good that Milton has the bulk of the playing
time on the present CD. There is a good reason for this as
Richard Rastall explains in his very interesting booklet notes.
Peerson obviously preferred “to write for voices and viols
in a verse style … his ‘full’ vocal music being only a small
proportion of his total output”. Rastall goes on “Milton only wrote one consort
song, his output otherwise being ‘full’”. He sums things up
by saying that the recording “presents the entire corpus of
‘full’ sacred songs by Milton and Peerson, but is numerically
unrepresentative of the two composers, Peerson being by far
the more prolific but in the verse style”.
was quite a versatile composer. As well as the keyboard pieces
mentioned above there is a series of fifteen unpublished Latin
motets. They were recorded in 2004 by Ex Cathedra under Jeremy
Skidmore (Hyperion CDA67490 – see
review). There are also some consort songs. The source of
the music on the disc under review is mostly from Sir William
Leighton’s ‘The Teares and Lamentations of a Sorrowful Soul’,
published in 1614. This was a collection of settings of metrical
psalm texts and verse paraphrases by twenty-one composers. Some
like Gibbons and John Bull are well-known; others like Robert
Kindersley are unknown. Other sources include Myrell’s ‘Trinitiae
Remedium’ and Ravenscroft’s ‘Whole Book of Psalms’.
may surprise you to know that three pieces on this new disc
have been recorded before and that on a now unavailable Collins
Classics disc performed by the Wren Baroque Soloists ’Martin
Peerson Private Musicke’ (14372). The pieces in question are
“Who let me at thy footstool fall”, ‘O God, that no time dost
despise’ and (a typical Protestant poem this) ‘Lord, bridle
my desires’. On the Collins disc there are only five performers.
In his most useful notes for this new disc Richard Rastall
who is responsible for the editions and reconstructions of
all of these pieces comments: “The vocal music of Milton and
Peerson was probably all for domestic use … all metrical Psalters
were, and its primary purpose was certainly for devotional
use in the household”. Later he adds “Both composers evidently
wrote mainly or exclusively for the household market”. The
problem is that the Selwyn College Choir consist of almost
thirty singers so the idea of domestic music-making is lost.
Also it should be remembered that these pieces were neither
performed nor meant as anthems for cathedral use - although
they may be so used nowadays.
love the fresh-voiced sound of this choir very much but I
am very pleased that the booklet contains all of the texts
as their diction is far from always clear. They are not helped,
especially by Milton, whose ‘old-fashioned imitative counterpoint’
rather clogs the textures … and size of the choir, also does
not help. This is not such a problem however in the more homophonic
metrical psalms. Incidentally these originally often ran to
more than twelve or so verses. You will be relieved to know
that here we have only a handful, just to offer a taste. For
example in Psalm 102 we are given verses 1, 8 and 12.
would have liked more dynamic shading between the verses or
dynamics built into the lines and their rising and falling.
Surely Sarah MacDonald has missed a trick here. There are
occasions when the unrelenting mezzo-forte becomes wearing.
you might think, these are minor gripes. It is after all fantastic
to have this very rare repertoire made available to us and
performed better than one can ever imagine it was at the time.
The recording in a fine medieval church captures the acoustic
well and offers an accurate balance - realistic and clear.