RECORDING OF THE MONTH
Christopher GIBBONS (1615-1676)
Motets, Anthems, Fantasias and Voluntaries
Not unto us, O Lord [4:58]
Voluntarie in C [4:09]
Above the stars my Saviour dwells [6:29]
Fantasy-Suite in d minor [6:57]
Ah, my soul, why so dismayed? [2:38]
Organ Voluntary in C [2:22]
O bone Jesu [3:26]
A Voluntary for ye Duble Organ in a minor [5:40]
The Lord said unto my lord [5:02]
Verse for the Double Organn in d minor [4:20]
Fantasy-suite in F [11:49]
Philippa Hyde (soprano), Jacqueline Connell (mezzo), Charmian Bedford (soprano), Richard Latham (bass), Alastair Ross (organ)
Choir of the Academy of Ancient Music; Academy of Ancient Music/Richard Egarr (organ)
rec. All Hallows Church, Gospel Oak, London, November 2010. DDD/DSD.
¼ comma meantone tuning.
Booklet with English and Latin texts, French and German translations included.
HARMONIA MUNDI SACD HMU807551 [62:27]
Where have they been hiding the music of Christopher Gibbons all this time? Before hearing this recording I had come across him only as a collaborator with Matthew Locke in the semi-masque Cupid and Death. That was on a recording - no longer available - on the Deutsche Harmonia Mundi label.
Sceptical of the claims that I had seen made for this recording in various quarters and early for an appointment in central London, I couldn’t resist popping into the HMV store in Oxford Street. This was rather than wait - as I could have - to obtain a review download free from classicsonline.com. Not having been in the store for some time - reviewers tend to have more than enough CDs already - I was sorry to see the classical department reduced to a shadow of its former self - quantum mutatus ab illo - but pleased to see three copies of the CD sitting on the shelf.
From the very opening of the first work, Not unto us, O Lord, I was enthralled. This is no mere run-of-the mill stuff; the discouraging appearance of the composer in his D.Mus. robes on the cover of the booklet belies the music’s inventiveness and I’m not sure that I shan’t be returning to this more often even than to the music of his father, Orlando Gibbons, himself now recognised as a major figure in taking up and developing the English church music of Tallis and Byrd.
It’s apparent that the demure portrait conceals a composer as much renowned for high jinks and dissolute lifestyle as Purcell. There’s often a discrepancy between portraits, especially those in doctoral gown, and the music, as witness the dour portraits of William Boyce and Maurice Greene on the covers of their respective albums from New College Oxford on the CRD label (CRD3483 and CRD3484 respectively). Even William Croft (CRD3491) looks only marginally more human.
As Richard Egarr writes (‘Discovering Christopher Gibbons’) in the excellent booklet, Gibbons junior now emerges as the missing link between the pre-Commonwealth world of William Lawes and the restoration baroquerie - his word - of Henry Purcell. The 16th-century polyphonic composers would have recognised the format, especially of the Latin-texted O bone Jesu - a text often set in the early 16th century, e.g. by Robert Carver (Coro COR16051), Robert Fayrfax (ASV CDGAU184) and Robert Parsons (Hyperion CDA67874 or Coro COR16056) - but would have been amazed at the bold approach. The unequal-temperament tuning employed for the recording serves only to emphasise that boldness.
It’s the motets and anthems that I found most appealing - the latter a peculiarly Anglican form that was being developed in the late 16th and early 17th centuries until it found official recognition in a quaint rubric at the end of Mattins and Evensong in the Restoration Prayer Book of 1662: ‘in Quires and Places where they sing here followeth the Anthem’. There’s an attractive verse anthem setting of the anonymous text Above the stars my Saviour dwells by Thomas Tomkins (Hyperion Helios CDH55066, tr.4 or, with viol accompaniment, Naxos 8.550602, tr.4) but Christopher Gibbons’ setting (tr.3) is more extended and much more intimate, especially in the final appeal to ‘come Lord Jesus, come away’. The keyboard works appear to have been most admired by Gibbons’ contemporaries, Samuel Pepys in particular, and it’s good to have these interspersed among the vocal items.
There’s real variety here, then: keyboard works with and without viols, full anthems and verse anthems and motets, enough to confirm Richard Egarr’s belief that Gibbons’ is ‘an extraordinary and unique voice’ and a ‘true English musical treasure’.
The performances are equally treasurable for the most part; I’m sure that Gibbons would have been pleased with them, though he would have been surprised at the employment of female voices. Some reviewers have commented adversely on the quality of the voices; I agree that the singing is not ideal - some of the minor discords are not of Gibbons’ making - but I was not greatly troubled by this; I wonder how good were the boys’ voices that Gibbons would have had at his disposal. I have no benchmark against which to judge this recording, but I’d be very surprised if anything better comes along. Some of the scores of Christopher Gibbons’ music, including the Voluntary for double organ, can be found in the online Werner Icking Archive - here.
I do hope that others will now turn to the music of this composer - and it goes without saying that I hope for more from The Academy of Ancient Music and Richard Egarr; he has already demonstrated his affection for the music of Orlando Gibbons with an album of keyboard works on the Globe label (GLO5468). There seems to be at least enough left for one more recording.
The CD layer of the recording is first rate. It’s possible to download this recording but, good as classicsonline.com’s mp3 transfers are - always at the full bit-rate of 320kb/s - an additional reason to buy the disc and not the download is the availability of the SACD layer and that gives an added dimension, even played in stereo. Though the glossy booklet comes with the download deal, it’s 40 pages long and bulky to print out. It is, in fact, too large to fit inside the jewel case - just a 4-page insert is included there - and has to be housed inside an outer cardboard cover. That’s something of a nuisance, since it means that the disc won’t slot into a CD drawer, but it’s difficult to see how the problem could have been avoided.
If you like the music of Orlando Gibbons and that of Henry Purcell, you should not hesitate to place your order for this major discovery whose music bridges their two worlds.
The music of a major discovery in near-ideal performances.