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Love is come again - Music for the Springhead Easter Play
Monteverdi Choir
English Baroque Soloists/Sir John Eliot Gardiner
rec. 2018, Saffron Hall, Saffron Walden, UK
Texts & translations included

Many people will be familiar with the Christmas album Once as I remember, which Sir John Eliot Gardiner and the Monteverdi Choir recorded in 1998 (review). I bought it when it first came out and it has remained one of my favourite Christmas discs ever since; I listen to it every year. Most of the music on that disc was performed at the annual nativity play which was produced each Christmas, starting in 1935, at the church in the Dorset village of Fontmell Magna – what a wonderful English place name - where the Gardiner family home, Springhead, was situated. I believe that regular annual performances were discontinued shortly after Gardiner’s father, Rolf, died in 1971. Those plays were an important part of John Eliot Gardiner’s childhood; he and his siblings were regular participants. As he recalled in a wonderfully evocative note accompanying the original issue of that CD: “I started life as a rather grumpy angel, aged two; graduated to senior shepherd and ended up singing and directing the choir.” The play was devised, organised and produced by Gardiner’s mother and father, Marabel and Rolf. What is abundantly clear from his recollections of the Springhead Christmas play is that this was a production by and for the local community.

Until this disc arrived for review, however, I had no idea that the Christmas play had an Easter counterpart. This was a somewhat later venture; we read in Christopher Webb’s excellent note, evidently produced in collaboration with Sir John Eliot Gardiner, that Marabel Gardiner established the Easter play in 1963. By then, John Eliot Gardiner was a Cambridge undergraduate and he was enlisted to organise the musical side of things. The following year saw his seminal performance of the Monteverdi Vespers of 1610 and members of the eponymous choir formed for that occasion thereafter took part in the Easter plays right up to 1984, as did Gardiner himself.

Marabel Gardiner devised the play along similar lines to the Christmas play; that is to say, a series of tableaux illustrating the story of the Passion and Resurrection with suitable words and music. The tableaux in question were: The Crucifixion; Easter Morning; Mary Magdalene at the tomb; The Road to Emmaus; The Lake Side; and Epilogue. On this disc we hear the music that would have accompanied these tableaux. Some of the pieces were deftly adapted by Gardiner to suit the circumstances of the play and also the forces available – this musical programme was his to devise, whereas the musical programme for the Christmas play was, I think, largely established by the time he became involved in the musical direction of it. Some pieces – those by Cornysh, L’Héritier, Rheinberger and Gabrieli - have been added for this recording: they all fit in seamlessly.

The Crucifixion is illustrated in music by a haunting traditional Herefordshire song; it’s sung by a lone soprano. Gesualdo’s highly individual music is vividly sung by the Monteverdi Choir while I don’t think I’ve heard William Cornysh’s Woefully array’d sound as stark as it does in this strongly projected performance.

The devotional polyphony of Taverner’s Dum transisset Sabbatum is so fitting for Easter morning; here it’s beautifully shaped – and real vigour is added for the concluding ‘Alleluia’. The traditional French song which follows is the melody which we know so well as Noël nouvelet. The L’Héritier piece that follows won’t be as familiar but it deserves to be: the music is exquisite.

The first music that illustrates the tableau of Mary Magdalene at the tomb is Thomas Morley’s motet Eheu! Sustulerunt Dominum meum, which is here performed in an English version by Sir John Eliot Gardiner. There follows some Gospel narrative in the form of an excerpt from Schütz's Historia der Auferstehung Jesu Christi. When the play was performed the English version, as sung here, was made by Gardiner; furthermore, he himself used to act as the Evangelist, though on this occasion Hugo Hymas does the honours. A short traditional English song concludes this section.

Gardiner’s skills as an adapter are in evidence again in The Road to Emmaus in the first of two passages of Gospel narrative which he set to the medieval hymn Victimae paschali laudes, attributed to the priest and writer, Wipo of Burgundy. This adaptation works very well. After it we hear the Rheinberger piece. This is an addition to the play’s original musical schedule. It’s an inspired addition, especially as it’s superbly sung by the Monteverdi Choir. The Byrd piece which follows is an English translation – by Gardiner, I presume – of the first part of the Tudor master’s motet Alleluia. Cognoverunt discipuli Dominum from the Gradualia of 1607. The second Gospel passage set to the melody of Victimae paschali laudes is woven together with another adapted extract from Historia der Auferstehung Jesu Christi. Then comes a short sequence which consists firstly of the German hymn Die ganze Welt, Herr Jesu Christ, as arranged by the Swiss Jesuit, Jacob Gippenbusch. Samuel Scheidt’s tune, which we also know as Puer natus in Bethlehem, is very similar. Finally, in this mini-sequence comes Percy Dearmer’s translation of the old German hymn, made for the Oxford Book of Carols. These three fit together nicely and the performance is exuberant.

The final tableau in the play was The Lake Side. Gospel narrative set to the old hymn O filii et filiae is followed by a plainsong Kyrie. The five-part motet Ego sum panis vivus is attributed to a nun, Leonora d’Este who was the daughter of Lucrezia Borgia, no less, by Alfonso, Duke of Ferrara. The small helping of Britten is an ingenious adaptation by Gardiner. Lacking music for a Gospel narrative, he skilfully used a fragment from Britten’s Canticle II for three unaccompanied voices. The section concludes most aptly with Tallis’s little gem, If ye love me sung by the three lower voice parts in the Monteverdi Choir.

For the Epilogue the boat is pushed out a bit. Christopher Webb explains in the notes that normally the instrumental forces deployed for the Easter play would have been restricted to just an organ and a cello. For this recording, however, Gardiner and his colleagues give us the 10-part splendour of Gabrieli’s Surrexit pastor bonus, complete with a cornett and a quartet of sackbuts. Their performance is jubilant and full of vitality. The play always ended with a procession out of the village church as Non nobis, Domine was sung in canon. This arrangement was made by the composer John Gardner, a close family friend. It’s a slow and solemn canon which brings this programme to a thoughtful conclusion, bringing us gently back to earth after the exultant Gabrieli performance.

What a fine tradition these Springhead plays represented, bringing the local community together in a very real sense at the Christmas and Easter festivals. I’m delighted that, following the Christmas disc, set down over 20 years ago, Sir John Eliot Gardiner has now also preserved the musical side of the Easter tradition at Springhead.

It’s probably superfluous to say that the performances are excellent in every respect, as you’d expect from this source. The recording, engineered by Mike Hatch and his Floating Earth colleagues, is very good indeed. The documentation is up to this label’s usual high standards. In particular, the notes by Christopher Webb are uncommonly interesting. The appeal of the booklet is enhanced by the inclusion of a number of informal photographs taken during the preparation and performance of the Easter play. These give a delightful feel for the enterprise.

This is a fine and thoughtful musical celebration of Easter – and of a local community.

John Quinn

The Crucifixion
Trad. Herefordshire The Seven Virgins
Carlo GESUALDO (1566-1613) O vos omnes
William CORNYSH (1465-1523) Woefully array’d
Easter Morning
JohnTAVERNER (c 1490-1545) Dum transisset Sabbatum
Trad French Love is come again
Jean L’HÉRITIER (c 1480-1552) Surrexit pastor bone
Mary Magdalene at the tomb
Thomas MORLEY (1557/8 – 1602) Eheu! They have taken Jesus
Heinrich SCHÜTZ (1585-1672) But Mary stood without the sepulchre
(Historia der Auferstehung Jesu Christi)
Trad English Bless’d Mary Magdalene
The Road to Emmaus
attrib. WIPO of Burgundy (c 955-c 1048) And behold two of them went that day
(Victimae paschali laudes)
Josef Gabriel RHEINBERGER (1839-1901) Abendlied
William BYRD (c 1543 – 1623) Alleluia. And it came to pass
attrib. WIPO of Burgundy And they said one to another
(Victimae paschali laudes)
Heinrich SCHÜTZ Verily the Lord is risen
(Historia der Auferstehung Jesu Christi)
Jacob GIPPENBUSCH (1612-1684) Die ganze Welt, Herr Jesu Christ
Samuel SCHEIDT (1587-1654) Surrexit Christus hodie
Trad. German Hilariter
The Lake Side
after Jean TISSERAND (d. 1494) Peter said, I go a-fishing
(O filii et filiae)
Plainsong Kyrie eleison (Missa Orbis factor)
attrib. Leonora D’ESTE (1515-1575) Ego sum panis vivus
after Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976) Lov’st thou me?
(Canticle II, Abraham and Isaac)
Thomas TALLIS (c 1505-1585) If ye love me
Giovanni GABRIELI (c 1554/7-1612) Surrexit pastor bonus
Anon, arr John Linton GARDNER (1917-2011) Non nobis, Domine



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