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Thomas WEELKES (c.1575-1623)
Sacred Choral Music
O Jonathan [2.31]
Rejoice in the Lord [1.33]
All people clap your hands [2.05]
Te Deum and Jubilate from the Eighth Service [12.40]
O how amiable are thy dwellings [3.29]
Christ rising again [6.12]
When David heard [4.23]
Laboravi in gemitu meo [4.35]
O vos omnes [4.23]
The Third Service Evening Canticles ‘in F fa ut’ [8.41]
Lord, to thee I make my moan [2.23]
Give ear, O Lord [4.44]
Hosanna to the son of David [2.06]
Tewkesbury Abbey Schola Cantorum/Benjamin Nicholas
rec. 4-6 May 2008, Dean Close School Chapel, Cheltenham
DELPHIAN DCD34070 [59.52]
Experience Classicsonline

Although essentially a church musician and one who worked in Winchester, Chichester and in London it was as a madrigalist that Weelkes originally made his reputation. This came in his twenties with his breathtaking contribution ‘As Vesta was from Latmos Hill descending’ in Morley’s collection known as ‘The Triumphs of Oriana’. Throughout his time as organist he produced madrigal books. These are from 1597 (was he really only about 22?), 1598, 1600 and 1608; in all about ninety-four pieces. His church music cannot be dated at all easily as most of it survives in later copied manuscript sources, and in organ score. He was prolific with, for example, ten settings of the evening canticles. An exuberant composer, his church music is certainly informed by his madrigal writing. He is often thought of as something of an eccentric
 
It’s good that, as well as some familiar anthems Tewkesbury Abbey Schola Cantorum also tackle some little heard repertoire. This includes the ‘Third Service’ which had to be reconstructed, as have other services like the Fifth, from an organ short score. But what of this choral group?
 
Back in the early 1970s a preparatory school was founded in Tewkesbury by a local keen musician Miles Amherst with the express purpose of singing Evensong during the week days. I know this because I sang with them for some years. Sadly in 2006 the school had to close but the tradition continued under Benjamin Nicholas who is Director of Choral Music at Dean Close Prep School in which capacity he also directs the men and boys of the Cantorum. To my knowledge this is their second disc.
 
One review of their first disc quoted at the back of the booklet in December 2007 stated boldly “I doubt whether there are many more admirable choirs outside Westminster, Oxford or Cambridge”, I therefore had high expectations. Although the singing can often be very fine I find it inconsistent in tuning especially the boys as when they are divided. You can hear this in for example the demanding six-voice anthems ‘Hosanna to the Son of David’ and ‘When David Heard’. There they seem to be pushing at the upper notes and sound a little strained. Perhaps these works were recorded at the end of a demanding session but I sometimes find the sound a little stressful. Not always however; other pieces, such as ‘Lord I make my moan’ and ‘O Jonathan’, come off much better. A more rounded sound but with an even shorter playing time is encountered on another all-Weelkes disc; this time from Christ Church Cathedral Oxford on Nimbus (NI 5125).
 
The Te Deum and Jubilate which are mostly in cathedral repertoires at present are reconstructions and form a part of the Eighth service. It is typical of Weelkes’ style to contrast homophonic writing with close imitative writing as here and also to self-quote as happens in many of the pieces. ‘All people clap your hands’, an Ascension-tide anthem, is more than alluded to in the service.
 
Looking now at some of the other pieces it may seem odd that this composer of often quite frivolous madrigals and canzonets could also write Latin motets. ‘Laboravi in gemitu meo’ is probably a tribute to Morley who also set the text. It even uses one or two of his motifs. ‘O vos omnes’ was only discovered as recently as 1989 and is quite passionate and moving. I can’t help but wonder why Weelkes wrote them. My own speculation would be that they are both early works written before Morley died in 1602 and during the reign of Queen Elizabeth who tolerated Latin music. It seems anyway, as Peter James mentions in his detailed and useful booklet notes, that the former may well have been composed by Weelkes for his B.Mus. exam entry in 1602.
 
The Evening Canticles set recorded here is the Third. It has the curious subtitle ‘in F fa ut’ which refers to the tonality based around the ancient theory of the hexachord, the third one in this case. It reflects the rising interest in tonality - in this case based in the modern key of F.
 
The brief but delightful anthem ‘Rejoice in the Lord’ using words from Psalm 33 gives the men a chance to shine. The same can be said of what is probably my favourite piece on the disc, the serenely madrigalian ‘O how amiable are thy dwellings’.
 
The verse anthem - including solo sections - was to develop further right into the early 19th century. As a form it is represented here by the Jubilate, the Nunc Dimittis and ‘Give ear O Lord’. The lively ‘Christ rising again’, with its exciting word painting, is certainly a tribute to Byrd’s verse anthem on the same text.
 
Although the booklet is adorned with a somewhat blue photo of the east end of Tewkesbury Abbey the recordings were made in the fine chapel at Dean Close School the acoustic of which plays an important and pleasing part in this recording.
 
It’s disappointing that Weelkes has yet to have a CD completely devoted to his secular music. While his church music is sung throughout the kingdom and beyond this disc offers a rare chance to hear several pieces otherwise little known. The performances are generally spirited and well conceived. Allowing for my earlier criticism, the singing is wonderfully warm, clear and beautifully balanced and the soloists all have clear and vibrant voices. Worth exploring.
 
Gary Higginson
 

 


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