Thomas Weelkes is one of the famous names in English music history from the Elizabethan and Jacobean era. His sacred music is part of the standard repertoire of British college and cathedral choirs. He composed a considerable number of anthems, and also a fair amount of services which unfortunately have all come down to us incomplete. Weelkes takes a special place in the development of the genre of the madrigal. His compositions in this genre are ranked among the very best, alongside those by Thomas Morley and John Wilbye.
Little is known about Weelkes' musical education. His first post was that of organist at Winchester Cathedral, where he stayed from the end of 1598 until 1601 or 1602. He then moved to Chichester Cathedral, where he was appointed organist and informator choristarum
. In 1602 he was awarded the B.Mus. degree from New College in Oxford. At a young age he began to publish madrigals; his first book was printed in 1597. It was followed by three further collections, which appeared in 1598, 1600 and 1608. In 1600 he contributed a madrigal to the collection The Triumphs of Oriana
, written in honour of Queen Elizabeth.
This disc offers a survey of Weelkes' vocal music. Two of the main genres are represented: the madrigal and the full anthem. The programme includes some pieces which are also part of the liturgical repertoire of choirs, but are in fact sacred madrigals: O Jonathan
and When David heard
. These stand out because of the strong expressive qualities of the text - a feature which also makes Weelkes' madrigals so compelling.
This disc includes several gems with some unusual harmonic progressions, all at the service of text expression. That goes for the very first item in the programme, What have the gods
, especially at the line "Care they for me, of all my joys bereaven". In various madrigals Weelkes makes use of chromaticism. You can hear this at the closing words of Cease sorrows now
: "my faint farewell". Obviously he uses it in some of the laments which are included in the programme, for instance Cease now delight
. In the descriptive madrigal Thule, the period of cosmography
, the chromaticism is even more extreme for the text "how strangely Fogo burns". Weelkes must have been very much aware of the latest trends in Italian madrigal writing. Like two proud armies
bears witness to that, as this madrigal is based on a piece by Alessandro Striggio. It begins as a battle scene; the battle is about love which is vividly illustrated in the music.
Weelkes also composed madrigals of a more light-hearted nature, which often include "fa-la-la's". However, the pieces on this disc have something special. Hark, all ye lovely saints
seems quite good-natured at first, but includes two phrases where the mood turns sour: "why weep ye?" in the first half and "’ere ladies mourn" in the second. In O care, thou wilt despatch me
Weelkes seems even to make a mockery of the 'fa-la-la' madrigal as the text indicates: "O Care, thou wilt despatch me, if music do not match thee. (...) So deadly dost thou sting me, mirth only help can bring me". In the second part we hear some of the most extreme chromaticism Weelkes has ever used.
This kind of music was meant to be sung in domestic surroundings, and that aspect comes off perfectly in this recording. The acoustic also fits the sacred madrigals, but is probably less suitable for the anthems. One cannot exclude that such pieces were also performed in intimate surroundings or in small chapels, but they work better in a more resonant acoustic. In general I prefer performances with a college or cathedral choir, such as the Choir of Winchester Cathedral (Hyperion, 1992) or the Choir of Christchurch Cathedral Oxford (Nimbus, 1988). The virtue of a performance as given here by the Consort of Musicke is that the individual lines are more clearly audible than with a much larger choir in a cathedral.
This recording was released almost twenty years ago, but it seems that Weelkes' madrigals are still not fully appreciated. To my knowledge there is no complete recording of his output in this department as yet. Whereas the fourth book is considered as of less interest, the previous books deserve a better treatment as this disc shows. Therefore the reissue of these performances can only be welcomed. The expressive qualities of Weelkes' madrigals is well conveyed by The Consort of Musicke. There is much attention to the text, and the declamatory elements are also brought out convincingly. I am a little less enthusiastic about the blending of the voices. The first years of this ensemble, with the likes of Martyn Hill and David Thomas, were probably the best in its history. In the line-up of this disc we do however find some singers whose vibrato at times damages the ensemble.
That said, everyone who likes the English renaissance madrigal is well advised to purchase this disc. It includes some superb examples of Weelkes' art.
Johan van Veen
Superb examples of Weelkes' art.