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In the Midst of Life - Music From the Baldwin Part Books - Volume 1
William BYRD (1543-1623)
Circumdederunt me dolores mortis
[5.04]; Audivi vocem de caelo [4.15]
Robert PARSONS (c.1530-1571)
Libera me Domine
Peccantem me quotidie
Credo quod redemptor meus vivit
John TAVERNER (c.1490-1545)
Quemadmodum [6.30]
William MUNDY (c.1530-1591)
Sive vigilem [3.31]
Dericke GERARDE (d.1580)
Sive vigilem [6.13]
Thomas TALLIS (c.1505-1585)
Nunc dimittis [3.14]
John SHEPPARD (c.1515-1558)
Media vita [23.09]
Contrapunctus/Owen Rees
rec. church of St. Michael and All Angels, Oxford, UK, 2014

The causes of the Reformation in England are many and complex and sometimes misunderstood. What can be grasped is that the music of the pre-reformed church continued to feed into the polyphony of the period after 1540. John Baldwin collected and copied about 170 works between 1575 and 1581 whilst he was a lay clerk in Windsor. He later became a singer at the Chapel Royal and clearly knew Byrd. He died four hundred years ago in 1615. Some of these pieces lie in tantalising fragments but in general the collection is well preserved.

His manuscript is a significant treasure as it contains several works not in any other source. These include the extraordinary Media Vita of Sheppard and Tallis’s (troped) Nunc Dimittis. Indeed much of Sheppard would be lost to us, as would some of the work of Robert Parsons, a considerable talent cut short by a drowning accident, if it were not for the work of John Baldwin.

This disc has been called Volume 1 and it has the theme of death and mortality. This is exhibited through texts like those found in the Requiem Mass (Parsons' Libera me) and various penitential psalms like Quemadmodum by Taverner.

You will also note that Sheppard, Parsons and Taverner were all composing in either the pre-Reformation or in its immediate more favourable (to Catholics anyway) aftermath in the reign of Queen Mary. Even so Byrd, Tallis and Mundy regularly set texts in Latin and were allowed to continue to do so through the reign of Elizabeth I.

Unfortunately the tenor part-book is lost but as in most cases the line tends to be the plainchant melody reconstruction is quite feasible. Media Vita is one such reconstructed work.

Two settings of Sive vigilem are included (Whether I am awake or asleep,/…. I always hear the sound of the trumpet”) referring to judgement day. One is by a rare figure Dericke Gerarde who was Flemish and who worked in England. It is an expansive and expressive setting whereas that by Mundy is more imitative and focused. It was also recorded by The Sixteen (Hyperion CDA 66319) on a CD devoted to Mundy’s Latin and English sacred works. You can follow the superius line by looking at page 15 in the booklet which gives you some idea of Baldwin’s clear handwriting and the care he generally took over text underlay.

Baldwin acknowledged that Byrd ‘Whose greater skill and knowledge dothe excelle all at this time” but it's fascinating how Byrd compares with these other figures. The wonderful work of Robert Parsons, a gentleman of the Chapel Royal himself, Peccantem me qotidie quotes, in the words ‘Miserere mei deus’, the simple rising and falling semi-tonal figure from Josquin’s justifiably famous setting of the Miserere (Psalm 50). It follows this “with an impassioned musical outburst to highlight the final words of the text ‘et salve me’ (save me) richly scored for six voices”. I quote here from Owen Rees’s excellent booklet notes. The three motets by Parsons are quite a highlight as also is the wonderfully glowing Media Vita –“In the Midst of Life we are in death/Whom can we seek as our helper except you”. I have a recording of this work by The Tallis Scholars on Gimell (CDGIM016) but for me this performance stands out. Indeed the sound made by Contrapunctus, the freshness, the balance and clarity of text and the understanding of the text demonstrated by detailed expressive singing, is outstanding. It is here most beautifully captured in the Oxford church, which I think is in Summertown.

Owen Rees, in 1993, made a mark on my listening with a disc of Portuguese Polyphony on Herald HAVPCD 155 and went on to record more of this repertoire. If you know that disc you will know what he can achieve. So this is a fine CD and I wait impatiently for its follow-up.

Gary Higginson

Previous review: Brian Wilson