An Emerald in a Work of Gold - Music from the Dow Partbooks
see end of review for track listing
The Marian Consort *
Rose Consort of Viols
rec. 10-13 January 2012, Chapel of All Souls College, Oxford. DDD
Texts and English translations included
DELPHIAN DCD34115 [72:49]
In 2011 I gave a warm welcome to a previous disc by The Marian Consort (review). On that occasion their programme comprised music from Spain’s Age of Gold. Now, in collaboration with the Rose Consort of Viols, they turn their attention to English music and, specifically, to music from the Tudor age.
The source of all the pieces on this programme is a set of five partbooks compiled by the Elizabethan scholar and bibliophile, Robert Dow (1553 - 1588). Into these partbooks Dow painstakingly copied a large number of pieces of music, probably starting in 1581. Most of the music was by indigenous composers but there were also a number of pieces by composers from continental Europe. The selected compositions included Latin motets, English sacred pieces and solo songs as well as a number of instrumental works. All this information and much more is laid out in the extremely informative notes which have been authored jointly by Rory McCleery, the director of The Marian Consort, and John Bryan of the Rose Consort of Viols. The chosen programme includes aspects of all these genres. What’s particularly interesting is that McCleery and Bevan are convinced that Dow’s work was no academic exercise but that he compiled these partbooks in order that he and his friends might use them in music making for their own pleasure. In an age when CDs, the internet, downloads and computer programmes such as Sibelius have made music more accessible to us than to any previous generation it’s rather humbling to think of someone going to such trouble in order to enjoy music. And furthermore, it’s clear that these partbooks were inscribed meticulously: the booklet illustration is a detail from Dow’s copy of Parson’s Ave Maria and one can readily appreciate - and admire - the craftsmanship; this may be a working document but it’s also a work of art. There is a second example of Dow’s fastidious work inside the jewel case.
As will be seen from the track listing, several of the pieces - nine in total - are instrumental items, played by the Rose Consort. In addition, they provide the accompaniment in a further five pieces, which are solo songs with viol accompaniment. I suppose I should come clean and say I’m not the best person to judge these performances since viol consort music is not the sort of repertoire to which I’ve ever felt drawn. However, what I can say, I think, is that the performances here seem to me entirely to justify the strong reputation that this ensemble has built up. Quite a number of the pieces they offer are rather melancholy in nature but, sensibly, they leaven the mixture with some rather livelier offerings, including the piece by Ruffo and van Wilder’s Je file quand Dieu me donne de quoy. I wonder if some of the pieces played by the viol consort are actually vocal works. I’m thinking, for example, of Maillard’s Ascendo ad Patrem meum, which is described in the notes as a motet. It may be that Dow transcribed this piece intending it for instrumental performance. On the other hand, we learn from the notes that the Tallis piece, O salutaris hostia, appears in the partbooks with text against every part yet here it is sung - very well - by soprano Emma Walshe accompanied by four viols. In all probability some judicious programme building has gone on overall with the pieces distributed amongst the various musicians in much the same way that Robert Dow and his friends might have done.
In my review of The Marian Consort’s previous disc I wrote that the singing “is very precise and controlled and the ensemble is well balanced. One is left in no doubt that here is a group of singers who are used to working with each other and who blend their voices and their musical natures together as by instinct. There is a great deal to admire in the precision of their tuning and the purity of tone.” There’s nothing on this new disc to challenge that view. Though, as before, there were times when I might have preferred the slightly fuller sound of, say, two voices to a part the one-to-a-part approach brings its own rewards. A prime example of this is to be found in the exquisite Ave Maria by Robert Parsons, probably the best-known piece on the programme. On balance I prefer it sung by a slightly larger group of singers - perhaps because that’s what I’m used to hearing - but there’s no denying that five perfectly balanced, poised young voices bring a rather special and very pleasing intimacy to this music.
The Amen at the end of Parsons’ Ave Maria is wonderful; a luxuriously extended musical leave-taking. This programme also contains another fine Amen, this one coming at the end of Non me vincat, Deus meus by Nicholas Strogers. He is a very obscure figure - an Englishman - and to the best of my knowledge I’ve never heard any of his music before. This piece is his sole surviving motet and the only copy of it is to be found in Robert Dow’s collection. Thank goodness he recorded it in his books for it is a very good piece and even if the ending can’t quite match the finis achieved by Parsons - few can - it is nonetheless both extended and exquisite.
Returning to Robert Parsons, he is one of several composers represented on this disc by settings of words from Psalm 119. His Retribue servo tuo is a noteworthy piece and it’s performed here with no little urgency by Rory McCleery and his colleagues. Other composers who took their inspiration from this psalm include Nathaniel Giles in Vestigia mea dirige, and Robert White, whose Justus es, Domine, is a piece in seven parts which impressed me very much. It’s very expressive and White uses the seven voices at his disposal to vary the textures imaginatively. It’s an outstanding piece and it’s served very well indeed by The Marian Consort.
In the various solo songs, which include something of a rarity in the shape of an Italian madrigal by Byrd, the solo parts are taken by individual members of the consort. All acquit themselves very well, singing their solos with fine expression and immaculate technique. In fact the entire programme demonstrates immaculate technique on the part of both singers and instrumentalists. In this sort of music, with one singer or player to each part, the musicians are exposed to merciless scrutiny but it seems to me that all come through this scrutiny with flying colours.
The recordings were made in a place which is new to me as a recording venue, the Chapel of All Souls College, Oxford. That’s highly appropriate because Robert Dow was a student there in the 1580s and, we are told, was the college’s bursar of laws between 1585 and 1587. I have never been in this chapel but it sounds to have good acoustics and to be on a fairly intimate scale. Paul Baxter has produced another of his fine recordings in this venue, which may be new to Delphian: the sound is clear, true and expertly balanced.
Robert Dow’s partbooks, which are now housed in the library of Christ Church, Oxford, were designed for practical use - as on this recording - but have come down to us as a work of scholarship and craftsmanship. It’s very pleasing that this fine album breathes fresh, twenty-first century life into his dedicated work.
A fine album that breathes fresh, twenty-first century life into the dedicated work of a Tudor scholar.
William MUNDY (c 1528 - c 1591) Sive vigilem* [2:36]
Nicholas STROGERS (fl. 1560 - 1575) A doeful deadly pang [1:39]
Nicholas STROGERS In Nomine a 5 No. 2 [3:07]
? Robert MALLORY (d. 1572) Miserere a5 [1:49]
Nathaniel GILES (c 1558 - 1634) Vestigia mea dirige* [5:31]
Robert WHITE (c 1538 - 1574) In Nomine a 5 [3:15]
William BYRD (1539/40 - 1623) O Lord, how vain [4:54]
Robert WHITE Justus es, Domine* [8:00]
Christopher TYE (c 1505 - 1572/73) In Nomine (‘Follow Me’) [2:57]
Thomas TALLIS (c 1505 - 1585) O salutaris hostia [3:03]
Robert PARSONS (c 1535 - 1572) Retribue servo tuo* [8:35]
Anon Come, Holy Ghost [3:19]
Vincenzo RUFFO (c 1509 - 1587) La gamba [1:24]
William BYRD La verginela [2:16]
Anon (‘Roose’) Dum transisset Sabbatum* [3:26]
Jean MAILLARD (fl. 1538 - 1570) Ascendo ad Patrem meum* [2:57]
Nicholas STROGERS Non me vincat, Deus meus* [4:21]
Philippe VERDELOT (1480s - c 1530) Madonna somm’acorto [2:09]
Philip van WILDER (c 1500 - 1553) Je file quand Dieu me donne de quoy [1:20]
Philip van WILDER Pour vous aymer j’ay mis toute ma cure [1:48]
Robert PARSONS Ave Maria* [4:12]
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