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CD: AmazonUK AmazonUS
Download: Classicsonline

Naked Byrd
William BYRD (c.1540-1623)
Ave Verum Corpus
(Gradualia, 1605) [4:43]
Morten LAURIDSEN (b.1943)
O Magnum Mysterium
(1994) [6:46]
Thomas TALLIS (1505-1585)
Loquebantur variis linguis
Gregorio ALLEGRI (1582-1652)
Miserere mei
John SHEPPARD (1515-1558)
Libera nos, Salva nos
Henryck GÓRECKI (b.1933)
Totus Tuus
(1987) [8:09]
Robert PEARSALL (1795-1856)
Lay a Garland
John TAVENER (b.1944)
Song for Athene
(1993) [6:41]
Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Ave Maria
Jonathan ROBERTS (b.1983)
Hope Finds a Way
Armonico Consort/Christopher Monks
rec. Saxon Sanctuary, Wootton Wawen, England, 12 October 2008. DDD.
Texts and translations not included

Experience Classicsonline

This recording is based on a concert programme which Armonico Consort present interspersed with plainchant and violin improvisation. Here we just have the core of those concerts, a series of works by what the sleeve-note describes as ‘composers who wore their hearts on their sleeves and saw their emotions laid bare.’ Suspicious as I always am of the concept that creative artists lay their emotions out for inspection on the musical stave, the printed page or the canvas, I prefer to think of this as a concert of beautiful and reflective music, sung in a manner conducive to emphasising that reflective beauty, which is both the strength of the recording and the reason why I would not recommend it to all listeners.

I suspect that many will purchase the CD for the sake of the Allegri Miserere, prominently advertised on the front cover. It so happens that I have been listening to several recordings of this ubiquitous work recently, which may account for my reservations about its performance here. Armonico Consort bring out all the beauty of the music, but I’m not sure that they completely capture its pathos. As the booklet reminds us, it is a penitential psalm, particularly associated with Lent and Holy Week, so the beauty is only half the story. Listen to the Tallis Scholars, who have made no fewer than three recordings of the work and you will find a different, added perspective.

Their first recording, originally made for Classics for Pleasure, is available from Gimell on GIMSE401, coupled with Palestrina’s Missa Papæ Marcelli and Mundy’s Vox Patris cælestis, at mid price. See review by John Quinn. Their second recording, on CD (CDGIM994) and DVD (GIMDP903 or GIMDN904), Live in Rome, was made, again with the Marcellus Mass and other music by Palestrina, in 1994 - see review by John France (Recording of the Month). Finally, they recorded two versions - with and without decoration - on CDGIM041, once again with Palestrina’s Missa Papæ Marcelli. I am currently working on an article to celebrate the 30th birthday of the Scholars’ own label, Gimell; you may wish to wait until that goes online before plumping for any of these Gimell recordings.

The Tallis Scholars recorded the whole Miserere, in which complete form it takes around 13 minutes. What Armonico Consort offer us is an abridged 7½-minute version. I’m not sure which verses are omitted, because there are no texts with this CD, which has to be regarded as a major shortcoming. The detailed descriptions of the works in the booklet, good as those are, are no substitute for texts and translations. At worst, they could have been included as a pdf document on the CD or made available online. When EMI included an abridged version of the Allegri on a recent recording, Essential Renaissance (6 885922), they made the omissions clear in the booklet, and the absence of texts on that recording is at least partially excusable by its being a super-budget 2-CD issue.

I could fill the rest of this review with recommendations of recordings of the Allegri. Let me mention just one more, from The Sixteen, directed by Harry Christophers on their own label, Coro. On COR16014, it’s coupled, in direct rivalry with the Gimell/Tallis Scholars, with Palestrina’s Missa Papæ Marcelli - see Tony Haywood’s recommendation. If you wish to discover some of the other music which Allegri composed, The Sixteen oblige on Music for the Sistine Chapel (COR16047) - see my October, 2008, Download Roundup.

All these recordings place Allegri in the context of music from his near contemporaries, which you may well prefer. The juxtaposition of old, not so old, and new on the Signum CD works well, but I know that some listeners prefer to keep their musical periods separate.

Byrd’s Ave Verum Corpus, which opens the CD, is also fairly readily available on record. It might have helped to make the Signum recording more attractive if other settings of this piece had been included - the Mozart, for example. It receives a beautiful performance here but, other things being equal, I prefer to hear this work in the context of other music by Byrd or his contemporaries. That can be done very inexpensively by purchasing the EMI recording, Essential Renaissance, which I have already mentioned. It’s performed there by King’s College, Cambridge, Choir under the direction of Sir David Willcocks; it doesn’t quite match up as a performance or recording to the best recent versions, but the Willcocks manner always brought out the affective quality of the music more openly than the new Signum version, even though he takes the music at a slightly faster pace.

Once again, I could fill the rest of this review with recommendations for Ave verum Corpus recorded within the context of Byrd’s own music, but I shall content myself with recommending the Tallis Scholars again, either on their superb bargain 2-CD set, The Tallis Scholars Sing Byrd (CDGIM208), where the work is coupled with the three Masses and more, or on Playing Elizabeth’s Tune (CD, CDGIM992, SACD, GIMSA592, or DVD GIMDP901 or GIMDN902), recorded in conjunction with a TV programme. Once again the Scholars, who are not noted for rushing through music, take the work rather faster than the Armonico Consort, to its advantage, I think. If you are looking for Ave verum coupled with one of Byrd’s Masses, you can find it with the 4-part Mass on Nimbus NI5287, sung by Christ Church, Oxford, College Choir under Stephen Darlingotn - see review - reverentially sung, but again taken rather faster than by Armonico Tributo.

I liked the Armonico Consort in Tallis’s Pentecost music Loquebantur variis linguis and I didn’t find their tempo too slow. Once again, however, the Tallis Scholars sing the music of their namesake slightly more briskly and make it sound even more right. As so often, tempo alone is not the only consideration; I could live with either version, or, indeed, with The Sixteen on their all-Tallis recording (Chandos CHAN0513), but the Scholars have the edge in terms of price - a considerable chunk of Tallis’s music on two CDs for the price of one. Don’t forget, too, that all these Gimell recordings include texts and translations. (The Tallis Scholars Sing Tallis, CDGIM203).

I must not forget to add that Signum themselves have a wonderful complete recording of Tallis’s music in their catalogue, performed by Chapelle du Roi/Alistair Dixon; Loquebantur variis linguis is on Volume 4 (SIGCD10)- again, it’s taken at a faster pace than by Armonico Consort.

At the same time as this new Signum recording I have been listening to a CD of Renaissance music sung by Cheltenham College Chamber Choir on Herald (HAVPCD351), which includes Loquebantur variis linguis. Initial listening suggests that I shall be giving that CD a firm recommendation, not least for the Tallis work which concludes the programme. The Tallis Scholars and the Cheltenham Choir both take the work significantly faster than Armonico Consort, whose performance, once again, is beautiful at the cost of being a little too drawn-out.

Armonico Consort also stress the beauty of the final work from the sixteenth century, Sheppard’s Libera nos, again, I would suggest, by dint of taking it a little too slowly. It is a prayer for liberation from sin, but I would suggest that it needs to be taken just a shade faster, as it is by The Sixteen on Hyperion. Their recording is available on an inexpensive 2-for-1 Dyad set or, more inexpensively still, on a 10-CD set The Golden Age of English Polyphony, which I made Bargain of the Month (CDS44401/10 - see review and review by Ralph Moore).

If you subscribe to the Naxos Music Library and wish to check my reservations for yourself, this Signum recording is available there - click here. The Library lists eleven other recordings of Byrd’s Ave verum for comparison, including The Tallis Scholars and Christ Church versions. Several of the other recordings which I have mentioned are also available from the Library, including Chapelle du Roi in Tallis.

Those who are not deterred by the mixture of periods here may rest assured that the more recent music fits well with the 16th-century items. Lauridsen’s O Magnum Mysterium, for example, slots seamlessly on track 2 between the Byrd (track 1) and Tallis (track 3). Here, too, and especially in the Górecki Totus Tuus, a piece which could well have been written by a Renaissance composer restored to life in the late 20th-century, the long vocal lines suit the music well and there is never any sense that the length causes any strain in the singing.

Robert Pearsall’s Lay a Garland forms a perfect bridge between the earlier and later composers. I don’t think that I’ve heard this work before but it epitomises Pearsall’s place as one of the earliest revivers of Renaissance music and it receives an attractive performance here. I almost preferred it to the well-known Tavener Song for Athene which follows - perhaps that music is too familiar now to sound fresh, or the performance just a touch too reverential as a result of its association with the funeral of Princess Diana.

The Bruckner receives a good performance but, as with the earlier music, I would have preferred to hear it in context with his other music, for example on Hyperion CDA66062, where the Corydon Singers under Matthew Best perform it in the company of some of Bruckner’s other short choral works. That version is also available on a 3-CD set, CDS44071/3. (Don’t forget their recording of Bruckner’s Mass in e minor and other works on the inexpensive Hyperion Helios label, CDH55277 - see review). 

The final work on the Signum CD, Jonathan Robert’s Hope finds a way, has, to my knowledge, no current recorded rival. It’s an attractive piece by a young composer who deserves to be heard, even if he seems yet not to have found a very distinctive voice - you may hear shades of Adiemus in the background - and it’s well performed.

The recording is good throughout and the notes informative. I retain my reservation about the slow tempi of most of the earlier music, but it isn’t strong enough to withhold a recommendation. The lack of texts in a premium-price recording is much more serious and must be regarded as a serious reservation in an otherwise favourable review. I would willingly have forgone the photograph which takes up all of page 9 and the details about the performers for the sake of those texts. The fact that I know most of them or can easily look them up is neither here nor there; others, especially fledgling listeners, will not be able to.

Brian Wilson 



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