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Thomas TOMKINS (1572-1656)
O Give Thanks unto The Lord
The Choir of HM Chapel Royal, Hampton Court Palace/Carl Jackson
Rufus Frowde (organ)
rec. 2019, Hampton Court Palace, Richmond upon Thames, UK
RESONUS RES10253 [74:25]

Tomkins lived through more than 80 years of immense economic, political, religious and social change. There were changes, too, in musical technique, style and aesthetics. The influence of Thomas Tallis (c. 1505 - 1585) was still to be felt as Tomkins was growing up; that of William Byrd (1543 - 1623) and his pupil Thomas Morley (1557/58 - 1602), whom Tomkins knew, as he matured; while the likes of Pelham Humfrey (1647 - 1674) from the next generation must have been familiar to Tomkins in his later years.

Yet Tomkins is often described as no more than a member of the English Madrigal School, and as little more than the last member of the English virginal school. In the current catalogue there are but six CDs devoted exclusively to Tomkins’s music (including that reviewed here, ‘O Give Thanks unto The Lord’ on Resonus). They also include the excellent ‘These Distracted Times’ on Obsidian 702, which would make a very good next listen if you enjoy ‘O Give Thanks’.

‘O Give Thanks unto The Lord’ is an inspired collection of a dozen and a half varied works performed by the Choir of HM Chapel Royal, Hampton Court Palace, directed by Carl Jackson. Recently retired, Jackson is an organ specialist, broadcaster and teacher with a wide experience in a variety of musical genres. The Hampton Court choir comprises up to eighteen boy choristers from local schools with six adult singers. For ten months of broadly the academic year the Choir performs in two services on Sundays, and on other Holy Days. Still operating on (and reflecting its) official foundation, the Choir comes under the jurisdiction of the Lord Chamberlain and of the Dean of HM Chapels Royal. Thomas Tomkins, of course, was a member of the Chapel Royal nearly 400 years ago.

The Choir’s musicality, though, is never to be doubted from the treasure that it offers on this CD. Indeed, the forward movement of, say, the Nunc Dimittis [tr.4] from the Fourth Service has all the pep and certainty of singers convinced of Tomkins’s originality and own confessional sturdiness. The opening item, Death is swallowed up in victory [tr.1] will probably shock you if you know little more of Tomkins than the stock characterisations referred to at the start of this review: the nearly five minutes (one of the longer works on the CD) of this verse anthem are almost symphonic in their scope; profound and written to sweep us before it with simple but effective counterpoint and driven chromaticism, the piece sets our expectations high for what Tomkins has to offer if we care to explore his music. Nor does the rest of the CD disappoint.

The programme chosen for this CD is varied; this also helps broaden our understanding and appreciation for Tomkins’s achievement. The sacred madrigal, Turn unto the Lord our God [tr.12], for instance, is followed by the wholly abstract Fantasy or Fancy for keyboard - Rufus Frowde’s organ playing is at its finest, coupling suppressed (evident and justified, yet not obtrusive) virtuosity with restraint.

One quickly understands how focused and almost ‘single-minded’ at times Tomkins’s work is. A simple or distinct idea, perhaps from the Psalms, is exposed and elaborated upon in ways which colour and extend our relationship with the confessional message it contains. But this is never didactic. Nor scarcely rhetorical; although there are one or two pieces here - like the Magnificat from Tomkins’s Seventh Service [tr.8] - which have the declamatory force and power of a Purcell of Handel.

The conviction and technique of the Hampton Court choir leaves us in no doubt that such extroversion is (musically) justified… perhaps all the more so when you consider that for much of Tomkins’s maturity Britain was at war over religion, politics and social change. Indeed, Tomkins often reaches a point (with Give sentence with me, O God [tr.7], for example) where the inventiveness and independent propulsion of the music remains with us in its own right. The blend of text with melody and harmony have a life of their own. Similarly, the verse anthem, Jesus came when the doors were shut [tr.11], is sung and played with a gentleness that almost disguises its fervour. This is not easy to achieve and Jackson is to be congratulated.

The singing of the Hampton Court choir is, for the most part, excellent: clean and expressive; sound and confident. There are one or two moments, though, when a certain instability seems to have been caused by an excess of exuberance. There are also times when you might feel that you can detect a certain slight preciousness in the articulation of the texts from some of the middle voice adults. Treat it rather as precision and a determination to communicate in a perhaps unfamiliar idiom, and this is not intrusive.

If you have never got to grips with Thomas Tomkins or have tended to group him, rather anonymously, in with the later English madrigalists (Gibbons, Morley), or never really seen where he distinguishes himself and how well he fits into the great tradition of Taverner, Tallis and Byrd then Purcell, this CD would make a suitable introduction.

If you already know and love Tomkins’s music, then there are some works recorded here for the first time to add to your collection. The CD represents a sample of the level of creative achievement which Tomkins achieved - and, as said, at a time when the world was turned upside down for believers in his tradition… ever the Royalist, Tomkins saw his home in Worcester damaged (and probably some of his manuscripts lost) and saw the desecration of his workplace, its cathedral; both his wives died in the space of barely ten years.

Jackson and the Hampton Court choir would have us see Tomkins as a serious and weighty composer; and one whose imagination and sense of what was possible musically at that time turned his ideas into compelling and highly enjoyable experiences which never lack substance - neither, though, do they overdo intricacy. Indeed, the very last piece on this CD - another Voluntary [tr.19] - is a perfect example. Its simplicity and quiet conviction is its undeniable power.

The acoustic, that of the Chapel Royal at Hampton Court itself, is reverberant but not at all overpowering. Its gentle spaces allow every word to be heard clearly, the balance between soloists and choir being well achieved; and the subtleties of Rufus Frowde’s organ fill the musical canvas as cleanly as if we were listening in the Chapel itself. The 20-page booklet which comes with the CD from Resonus has full track listings and texts (the singing is all in English), a brief background to Tomkins’s vocal works and a description of each of those presented here. There are useful bios of the performers and a couple of atmospheric photos of the interior of the Chapel in which they were recorded. If Tomkins is little more than a name, however you may suspect there is more to that name than is usually celebrated, this makes a good place to explore the composer’s compelling output.

Mark Sealey
Death is swallowed up in victory [4:47]
Preces and Responses: I. Preces [1:26]
Magnificat and Nunc dimittis (The Fourth Service): I. Magnificat [5:50]
Magnificat and Nunc dimittis (The Fourth Service): II. Nunc dimittis [3:45]
Who can tell how oft he offendeth [4:57]
Gloria tibi Trinitas [4:29]
Give sentence with me, O God [7:44]
Magnificat and Nunc dimittis (The Seventh Service): I. Magnificat [5:19]
Magnificat and Nunc dimittis (The Seventh Service): II. Nunc dimittis [2:50]
Preces and Responses: II. Responses [5:09]
Jesus came when the doors were shut [3:46]
Turn unto the Lord our God [2:34]
A Fantasy [4:06]
Give ear to my words [5:37]
The heavens declare the glory of God [2:59]
Remember me, O Lord [2:41]
O Lord, how manifold are thy works [2:12]
O give thanks unto the Lord [2:05]
Voluntary [2:00]

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