Thomas TOMKINS (1572-1656)
Anthems & Canticles
Fantasia XVIII a 6 [02:33]
Sing unto God [06:04]
A Fantasy* [03:01]
Thou art my king [04:35]
Fantasia XIV a 3 03:13]
Above the stars [03:35]
A substantial verse* [04:23]
Pavan VI a 5 [03:50]
Fifth Service:
Magnificat [05:09]
Pavan VII a 5 [02L44]
Fifth Service:
Nunc dimittis [02:41]
Alman a 4 [01:20]
O Lord, let me know mine end [05:57]
For Mr Archdeacon Thornburgh* [02:14]
Fantasia XVII a 6 [03:05]
Pavan and Galliard XVIII a 6 [04:30]
Rejoice, rejoice and sing [06:18]
Choir of Magdalen College, Oxford/Daniel Hyde (organ*); Phantasm Viol Consort/Laurence Dreyfus
rec. 30 March - 1 April 2015, Chapel of Merton College, Oxford, UK DDD
OPUS ARTE OACD9040D [65:19]

Thomas Tomkins belongs among the last generation of English composers before the Commonwealth. In 1596 he had been appointed organist of Worcester Cathedral and he occupied this post until 1646. In that year the city surrendered to the Parliamentary forces, and as a result cathedral services were almost completely discontinued. This also meant that Tomkins lost his job. Fortunately that happened when he was already at an advanced age. For several decades before that, he had been a most respected composer and organist who was mainly connected with Worcester Cathedral as well as the Chapel Royal.

There were two kinds of anthems in the liturgy of the Church of England: the full anthem and the verse anthem. The former is entirely written for 'choir', whereas the latter includes passages for solo voices. In church, the verse anthem was usually accompanied by the organ, but in the Chapel Royal there was the alternative option of the viol consort. It was also at the court that the verse anthem had its origins: it developed from the secular consort song, a piece for solo voice and viols.

The present disc includes five verse anthems which have survived with an accompaniment for a consort of viols. That makes it likely that they were intended for performance at the Chapel Royal. They usually begin with an episode for solo voice; the opening verse is then repeated by the choir. In the anthems on this disc the main solo parts are for lower voices: tenor and bass. In Sing unto God the booklet indicates only one soloist, the bass Jonathan Arnold, but there are also contributions from one of the treble soloists, probably Max Langdale. Arnold has a nice voice but the lowest notes are a little too weak. Here and in the other anthems Langdale sings well but the slight vibrato is regrettable.

Tomkins is not badly represented on disc but most recordings include the same pieces, such as When David heard that Absalom was slain and I heard a voice from heaven. The pieces recorded here are probably less familiar and that makes this disc a useful addition to the discography. That also concerns the consort pieces which are not often included in concerts or CD recordings. The pieces selected here are different in character. Notable are the Fantasia XVII a 6 and the Pavan VI a 5 for their abundant use of chromaticism. That is all the more remarkable as there are no traces of harmonic experiments in the anthems. These are dominated by imitative counterpoint, as is the Pavan VII a 5. Whereas most consort pieces are rather serious in nature and sometimes have something sad about them, the Alman a 4 is a light-hearted dance, vividly played by Phantasm, which also performs most of the other consort pieces.

Considering Tomkins's lifelong activities as a professional organist, his oeuvre includes relatively few organ pieces. In this respect he is not different from organist-composers in other parts of Europe, such as northern Germany and Italy. Organists used to improvise and there was no real need to write anything down, let alone to publish organ pieces. The three items on this disc, nicely played by Daniel Hyde, give some idea of Tomkins's skills in this department.

All in all I am satisfied with these performances: the choir produces a beautiful sound and the text can be clearly understood. Its members deliver good performances of the solo episodes. The anthems included here also appear on a disc which Harmonia Mundi released in 2003, with Fretwork and an ensemble of singers which includes Emma Kirkby and Charles Daniels. As there is no choir there, the anthems are sung with one voice per part, which is a nice alternative to the present disc. Another interesting aspect is the use of historical pronunciation, something which is seldom practised in recordings of English anthems.

Johan van Veen

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