Robert Parsons is a rather shadowy figure. Little is known of his life, save that he became a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal in 1563 and that he drowned, in the River Trent, I believe, at Newark in January 1572, whereupon William Byrd took the vacancy among the Gentleman of the Chapel Royal. Only a small amount of music has come down to us. What has survived includes some songs and instrumental pieces. There are also two Services in English. Otherwise his entire corpus of church music is included on this disc. In his extensive and very good booklet notes Andrew Carwood speculates that the fact that scarcely any liturgical music in English by Parsons is known may suggest that he was inactive as a composer during the strongly Protestant reign of Edward VI (1547-1553). Carwood also suspects that, like several of his English musical contemporaries, Parsons’ religious sympathies lay with Catholicism.
It appears that he died young and that he was well regarded by his peers for Andrew Carwood quotes a Latin couplet found in a partbook from the 1580s, the English translation of which is as follows:
Parsons, you who were so great in the springtime of life,
how great you would have been in the autumn, had death not come.
On the evidence of the music sung here by The Cardinall’s Musick, contemporary admiration for Robert Parsons was amply justified. All the music in this collection is interesting and of high quality. Retribue servo tuo, for example, is a setting of verses from Psalm 118 (119). In this piece Parsons deploys groups of soloists at times and the division of the music into sections for soloists and for full consort accentuates the dramatic tone. Andrew Carwood and his singers give an urgent, vigorous performance.
The alternatim setting of the Magnificat is well described by Andrew Carwood as “opulent”. I admire it greatly, especially in this excellent performance. It seems to me that Parsons displays supreme confidence in his vocal writing and the result is something of a virtuoso piece. Sample, for instance, the urgency and exhilaration at ‘et exultavit spiritus meus’. Mind you, that urgency and exhilaration stem as much from the performers; The Cardinall’s Musick give a colourful and exciting rendition of this piece – listen to the thrust of their singing at ‘dispersit superbos’.
Even more remarkable as a composition is O bone Jesu, which Andrew Carwood rates as the composer’s “highest dramatic achievement”. The music is divided into sections for groups of soloists, of varying combinations, and for full consort. It’s a substantial and ambitious piece and, unlike in the Magnificat, Parsons doesn’t have the compositional ‘respite’ afforded by sections of plainchant – in some ways I think this makes it an even more impressive composition than the Magnificat. It’s a very fine piece and it receives here a superbly committed performance. The music becomes increasingly fervent and exciting as the piece unfolds, especially the last few minutes from ‘O Rex noster.’
The disc concludes with the piece by which Robert Parsons is best known nowadays, his rapt Ave Maria. Most of us will be familiar with performances by choirs in which the top line is taken by sopranos or trebles. Here. however, the voices are ATTBarB and the lower voices and darker hues give the music, if anything, a greater sense of intimacy. The placing of this wonderful piece at the end of the programme is deeply satisfying. Not only is it a fitting finis to a recital of music by this Tudor master but also, on this occasion, it affords a tranquil, beneficent coda after the more extrovert O bone Jesu.
The singing of The Cardinall’s Musick is superb throughout the programme. Production values are up to Hyperion’s usual exemplary standards: the recorded sound, produced in the lovely, benign acoustic of the chapel at Arundel Castle, is all that one could wish for while the booklet is comprehensive.
My colleague Brian Wilson welcomed the download version of this album most warmly and I second his enthusiasm. This is a marvellous recital and those who know
Robert Parsons only through Ave Maria – surely one of the best-loved pieces of Tudor polyphony, and rightly so – will find this disc an ear-opener.
See also download review by Brian Wilson