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Robert PARSONS (c.1530–1572)
Magnificat [14.35]
Venite (First Great Service) [5.21]
Te Deum (First Great Service) [8.08]
Peccandem, me, quotidie (Responds for the Dead) [4.12]
Benedictus (First Great Service) [8.02]
Libera me, Domine (Responds for the Dead) [6.45]
Creed (First Great Service) [5.36]
Credo quod redemptor (Responds for the Dead) [3.28]
Magnificat (First Great Service) [5.17]
Nunc Dimittis (First Great Service) [2.44]
Ave Maria [5.36]
Voces Cantabiles/Barnaby Smith
rec. 8 Feb 2007, St. Jude on the Hill, Hampstead; 9 Feb 2007, All Hallows Church, Gospel Oak
NAXOS 8.570451 [69.44]
Experience Classicsonline

Not a great deal is known about Robert Parsons, beyond the bare bones. He was appointed a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal in 1563 but was linked to the Chapel before this. He seems to have lived in Greenwich. He was drowned at Newark. Much of his music has survived, but in incomplete editions. Barnaby Smith, in his booklet-notes for this new CD, speculates that Parson’ tragic death might have led to his music being neglected by the Chapel Royal.

Undoubtedly much of his music was written for this institution and on this disc Barnaby Smith and Voces Cantabiles give us some of the grandest: the Latin Magnificat, the largest-scale single work which Parsons wrote, the English Great Service, the Latin Responds for the Death and the Ave Maria. This seems to be the first disc for a very long time to be entirely devoted to his music and for that we must be very grateful to Smith and his ensemble. Smith’s aim, stated in his notes, is to ‘provide Parsons with a memorial service he never received and aid his return to a place alongside the more recognised English Renaissance composers.’ And to the group’s credit they largely succeed.

The Latin Magnificat probably dates from the reign of Queen Mary. Parsons alternates the plainchant with polyphonic verses set for six-voiced choir. He displays great virtuosity in the work using a variety of different voice combinations in the verses. With its high soprano lines, the work links back to the tradition of Latin Marian music in the Eton Choir Book. Smith and his choir sing the work with great clarity and a good sense of line. They bring great enthusiasm to it and whilst you could conceive of a technically more perfect performance, the choir’s response is infectious and I came to love this lively performance. The sopranos cope well with the high tessitura of the upper reaches of the part though their tone can get a little hard.

When Edward VI ascended the throne, Archbishop Cranmer instituted a series of radical changes to the English liturgy. This involved the creation of an entirely new service of Evensong. Tallis was the first composer to set the Evensong Canticles. But Parsons’ Great Service, a setting of the canticles for Matins and Evensong plus the creed, is far grander than Tallis’s first setting. Whereas Tallis’s Edwardian music seems to be carefully negotiating the requirements of simplicity and textual clarity which came from the new regime, Parsons writes in a modification of his Latin manner. Thus he created an elaborate work for two antiphonal choirs with musical unification between the different movements. Smith in his notes implies that the service dates from the Edwardian period but Grove says that the work is clearly Elizabethan, thus aptly demonstrating the difficulty of accurately dating sacred music of this period.

Whatever the exact date of composition, the work is wonderful and receives a fine performance here. I could have wished that Smith and his choir made rather more of the English words. Their diction is adequate, but only just, and this was a period when comprehension in service music was very important. Occasionally individual voices stand out rather too much, but on the whole Smith has some impressive singers at his disposal and the various polyphonic groupings work pretty well.

Interspersed within the Great Service are three pieces from Responds for the Dead - a collection of settings of Latin texts from the Burial Service. This may also date from Queen Mary’s reign but could just as likely be Elizabethan as the use of Latin texts was permitted in Elizabeth’s Chapel Royal. I can understand why Smith felt the need to mingle the Great Service with other items but personally I would have liked the two groups of works to have been kept separate. If anything these Latin pieces are even stronger than the English ones, with Parsons creating distinctive and dramatic soundscapes.

Finally the choir sing Parsons’ Ave Maria; perhaps his best known piece. The work dates from the late 1560s and Grove posits that the piece may have a sub-text relating to Mary Queen of Scots.

Barnaby Smith and Voces Cantabiles have created an impressive disc of Parsons’ music. The group numbers some 22 singers which means that the altos and tenors are singing two voices to a part in the eight-part music. This does not give us a luxuriantly well upholstered sound, instead you are aware of beautifully crafted vocal lines and a good interplay between individual voices. The group responds to Parsons’ music with enthusiasm and conveys this to their listeners.

This is an impressive disc, and should go some way towards rehabilitating Parsons' cause in the recorded music industry. Newly created editions for these pieces are used. Whilst it would be possible to imagine more technically sophisticated performances, Parsons' cause is in good hands as the choir deliver his music with enthusiasm, lively vividness and fine musicality.

Robert Hugill

see also review by Mark Sealey


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