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The Originals – Debut
The Clerkes of Oxenford/David Wulstan
rec. dates & venues not supplied
Texts not included
GRIFFIN GCCD4083 [54:00]

In his book on the Tallis Scholars (What we really do – review), Peter Phillips acknowledges the influence of the work of the late David Wulstan (1937-2017) and The Clerkes of Oxenford on groups such as the Tallis Scholars. Alluding to Wulstan’s pioneering work, he refers to “the brave new world of the Clerkes in the 1970s”. He also points out that, in reference to the sound which we are so accustomed to hearing from ensembles such as the Tallis Scholars “David Wulstan got the sound first, and he did it not least by sticking to his guns over the use of high pitch in Tudor music.” A generous tribute indeed.

However, in the context of this present disc what struck me even more forcibly was this further comment by Peter Phillips. “I would say I have been trying to recapture the sound of the Clerkes ever since I started to worship them and their music-making, with the debility that I cannot remember exactly what that sound was. Has it improved in my memory as time has gone by?”. I wonder if, in recollecting the Clerkes’ sound, Peter Phillips, who attended a number of the group’s early concerts and actually sang as part of the ensemble in three concerts in 1975, may have been thinking principally of the sound that the Clerkes made once David Wusltan had admitted to use female voices to the group. This happened, I believe, in the early 1970s - the Clerkes had been founded in 1961 - but what we hear on these recordings is an all-male group with altos (including James Bowman) on the top line.

These recordings were new to me and it’s been fascinating to listen to them. Because an all-male group features throughout, the sound is very different from that which groups such as The Sixteen or the Tallis Scholars make. Nonetheless, one can readily discern the lineage. This is the first CD issue of the recordings and I do wish that some basic information such as the recording venue(s) and, crucially, the dates had been supplied. The booklet includes notes authored by David Wulstan and dated 1973; that, and the all-male group, gives us a rough idea of the recordings’ vintage.

I may be wrong but the recordings seem to come from two different releases: three of the items are Easter pieces, the remainder are for the Christmas season. The Easter items are right in the middle of the programme on the disc (tracks 11-12) and it would have made better artistic sense, I think, if all the Christmas pieces had been placed together with, perhaps, the Easter items to finish.

The Easter group includes Taverner’s wonderful Dum Transisset Sabbatum (the four-part setting). To be honest, the singers are recorded rather too closely for my taste. This piece has been done better on disc since but one must acknowledge, with gratitude, the pioneering effort of Wulstan and his team. I liked the performance, though, and admired also the Clerkes’ account of Robert Whyte’s fine Regina coeli.

It’s most interesting to hear the medieval Christmas items and here we are, I think, quite close to today’s performance practice in such music. The well-known Angelus ad Virginem is well done with its mixture of alto solo verses and others in three-part harmony. Robust numbers such as Nowell, Tydynges trew (sung in Middle English) and Nowel, owt of your slepe come off well. Moving a little further forward in time we find Nesciens Mater by Thomas Wright, a four-part setting (AATB). Composer and piece were previously unknown to me; I’m glad I’ve heard it. Pygott’s Quid petis, O Fili? Is roughly contemporaneous – probably slightly later than the Wright. It’s given here with a good deal of sensitivity. Echo effects in I come from Heaven high to tell are well managed while in Quem Pastores Laudavere three groups of singers are deployed to give a most attractive double echo effect.

I was mildly surprised to find three twentieth century items on the disc but I presume these were among the pieces given at the Clerkes’ Christmas concerts – apparently the Berkeley and Fricker items were specially arranged for them to sing. I’m not sure that these all-male versions work all that well (the Berkeley is accompanied by organ) and the Fricker is not a piece that appeals to me anyway.

As James Murray tells us in his brief booklet note, David Wulstan and the Clerkes of Oxenford were highly influential in their day. He lists a number of distinguished musicians who were inspired by their work and learned from it. This list includes not only Peter Phillips but also Harry Christophers, Philip Cave (Magnificat) and Paul Hillier. For such a legacy many music lovers will be hugely indebted to David Wulstan for his hugely significant pioneering work. It’s very good that these early recordings by him and the Clerkes are now available on CD for us to enjoy and learn from.

John Quinn

Track list
Anonymous Pro tis genniscos (Byzantine, Sophronius, 7th Century) [1:54]
Anonymous Angelus ad Virginem (English 14th Century) [3:55]
Anonymous Nowell, Tydynges trew (English 15th Century) [1:30]
Anonymous Song of the Nuns of Chester: Qui creavit coelum (English 15th Century) [2:53]
Anonymous Nowel, owt of your slepe (English 15th Century) [1:41]
Anonymous noiva, nova, Ave fit ex Eva (English 15th Century) [1:19]
Thomas WRIGHT (fl .1550) Nesciens Mater [2:52]
Richard PYGOTT (d. ca. 1550) Quid petis, O Fili? [9:33]
Anonymous I come from Heaven high to tell (Continental 16th Century) [3;19]
Anonymous Gaudete, gaudete, Christus est natus (Continental 16th Century) [1:47]
John TAVERNER (d. 1545) Dum Transisset Sabbatum [6:28]
John SHEPPARD (d. ca. 1560) Christ our Paschal Lamb [1:46]
Robert WHITE (d. 1574) Regina coeli [3:58]
Anonymous Quem Pastores Laudavere (Continental 16th Century) [1:57]
Sir William WALTON Make we joy now in this fest [3:30]
Sir Lennox BERKELEY Sweet was the song the Virgin sang [3:48]
Peter Racine FRICKER A Babe is born [1:47]

 

 




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