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In The Midst Of Life : Music from the Baldwin Partbooks I
William BYRD (1539/40-1623) Circumdederunt me dolores mortis [5:04]
Robert PARSONS (c.1535-1572) Libera me Domine [7:29]
William BYRD Audivi vocem de cślo a5 [4:15]
William MUNDY (c.1529-1591) Sive vigilem [3:31]
Robert PARSONS Peccantem me quotidie [6:08]
John TAVERNER (c.1490-1545) Quemadmodum [6:30]
Thomas TALLIS (c.1505-1585) Nunc dimittis [3:14]
Derick GERARDE (1485-1580) Sive vigilem [6:13]
Robert PARSONS Credo quod redemptor meus vivit [2:44]
John SHEPPARD (c.1515-1558) Media vita [23:09]
Contrapunctus/Owen Rees
rec. Church of St Michael and All Angels, Oxford, 18-20 January 2014. DDD
Texts and translations included
SIGNUM SIGCD408 [68:17]

Reviewed as 24-bit lossless download from (also available in mp3 and 16-bit lossless, all with pdf booklet, and from dealers on CD).

This is the first volume of a planned series of recordings of music from the huge collection known as the Baldwin Partbooks, a set of six, of which one is missing. The Partbooks were made in about 1580 by John Baldwin, a lay clerk at St Georgeís Windsor and later a gentleman of Queen Elizabethís Chapel Royal.† As places where Latin was Ďunderstanded of the peopleí, as allowed in the Book of Common Prayer, these Latin motets would have been sung in both establishments, provided that nothing in them impinged on reformed beliefs.† Thus thereís no mention in these works of prayers to the Virgin Mary or the saints, whose role since the 1549 Prayer Book had been as examples to honour and try to follow.

On an earlier release by Contrapunctus, The Cry of the Oppressed (SIGCD338 Ė review) Owen Rees put together a series of settings by the English Catholic composers Tallis and Byrd. He was not the first to interpret these as a sectarian lament for the oppression of their faith, coupling them with texts by Portuguese composers which he regards as a similar complaint against Spanish oppression.† Itís a feasible theory: it even seems likely that Byrdís compositions in this form were Ďansweredí by continental composers in paired motets, as illustrated on an EMI Classics recording from Kingís College Cambridge, apparently no longer available, even as a download.† More to the point, that first Signum recording Ė downloaded in 24-bit sound from, with pdf booklet Ė got Contrapunctus off to an excellent start from which the new release builds.

The motets on the theme of mortality on the new CD also fit the post-Reformation bill in that they avoid all mention of purgatory, dismissed in the Thirty-nine Articles as Ďa fond (foolish) thing vainly inventedí, though they include the medieval text ĎIn the midst of life we are in deathí, included in the English funeral service though rejected from the Roman rite at the Council of Trent on the grounds that it had been used superstitiously.

John Sheppardís setting of that text, Media vita, the longest work here and the final item, is uniquely preserved in the Baldwin book.† Itís actually slightly misleading to give it that title: itís really a setting of the Nunc dimittis, the canticle prescribed for Evensong and Compline, with the antiphon sung with it during the latter part of Lent.† As Sheppard and Taverner are the only composers here who did not survive into the reign of Elizabeth I, the setting predates the Tridentine proscription.

Itís a wonderful piece with, hardly surprisingly, eight current recordings to its name, though three are by The Tallis Scholars in different collections (Gimell) and two by The Sixteen (Coro).† Apart from those two distinguished groups, itís available in recordings by Stile Antico (Harmonia Mundi) and the Gabrieli Consort (DG, download only).

Iíve sung the praises of the Scholars and Sixteen often enough for me not to need to repeat myself, and Stile Antico also offer very distinguished performances of an all-Sheppard programme entitled Media Vita (HMU807509 Ė DL Roundup April 2010).† Stile Antico take the music very slowly Ė 25:32 overall Ė which is justifiable in view of its penitential/funereal nature, but at 23:09 the new recording is more in line with, if still slightly slower than, the tempo chosen by The Tallis Scholars.

The Tallis Scholars are not known as speed merchants, so you might expect anything even marginally slower than their performance to be too slow but there are more important factors at play than just speed and all these recordings, not least the new one, work very well.

Byrdís Audivi vocem is a setting of an anthem sung before the Reformation at Vespers for the dead and at Mass of the Virgin Mary in Advent, so at first it looks like an exception to the rule that everything here could have been sung at Windsor or in the Chapel Royal when Baldwin sang in those institutions.† The text, however, comes straight from the Bible, an unimpeachable source even for puritans, and was included, in English, in the 1559 Anglican funeral service: “Then shalbe sayde, or songe: I HEARDE a voyce from heaven saiyng unto me, wryte from hencefurth, blessed are the dead whiche dye in the Lorde.”†

Surprisingly I can find only one other recording of this piece, from The Cardinallís Musick directed by Andrew Carwood on the first volume in their complete excursus of Byrdís Latin music (ASV CDGAU170, download only: sample/stream from Qobuz).† It really is time that Universal either reissued those recordings or reassigned them to someone who would: the series was completed by Hyperion.† The Cardinallís Musick adopt a slightly faster tempo (3:41 against 4:14) but thereís otherwise little to choose between them and Contrapunctus: both are excellent.† Having listened to the ASV recording of Audivi vocem, I hadnít the heart to cut off the following works.

There is considerable doubt about the date of Tallisís 5-part Nunc Dimittis.† It seems to form a pair with the 5-part Magnificat, which suggests post-1549 composition for the English Prayer Book, where both canticles are sung at Evensong; before then they would have been sung separately at Vespers and Compline.† An Elizabethan date is suggested by the pairing and by the fact that Latin texts were permissible in the Chapel Royal and elsewhere where the 1560 Latin version of the Prayer Book was in use.† Nevertheless, there is some evidence that composers paired the two works before the Reformation.† Whatever their date, my only reservation about the new recording is that the two canticles are paired on Volume 2 of the complete recordings by Chapelle du Roi and Alistair Dixon (SIGCD002) and by The Cardinallís Musick and Andrew Carwood on a collection of Tallis works, the first of several fine recordings which they have made for Hyperion (CDA67548 Ė review) and the two make sense together.

I took the opportunity of downloading the Chapelle du Roi recording from Hyperion, complete with pdf booklet, to replace the low-bit-rate version which I had; the lossless sound is significantly better and £7.99 a small price to replace the mp3.† Iíve already mentioned in Download News 2015/4 that this is a convenient way to plug any gaps which you may have in this fine series.

Iíve picked just three items from this very fine collection for comparison.† Any one of the fine recordings which Iíve mentioned will do very nicely.† Thatís equally true of the other items on the new Signum recording: if the coupling appeals thereís no need to look any further, but the quality of the music, performances, recording and notes is likely to set you on a search for more of the kind.† Meanwhile this is another example of the very high quality of current performances of renaissance music.† If you want anything better, you may have to wait like Sullivan in The Lost Chord: It may be that deathís bright angel / will speak in that chord again.† /† It may be that only in Heaven / I shall hear that grand Amen.

Brian Wilson


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