A Tudor Christmas
Trinity Boys Choir EIGHT/Katharine Fuge, David Swinson
L'Armonia Sonora/Mieneke van der Velden
Siebe Henstra (organ)
Recorded 2018 at Trinity Recital Hall, Croydon, UK
RONDEAU ROP8002 [57:32]
It is that time of the year again, when discs with music for Christmastide are released. With any luck, they bring us at least some things that we haven't heard many times before. That is certainly the case with the disc under review here. The programme includes several pieces that are very well known, but also some less familiar stuff. However, the most uncommon feature is the way the repertoire is performed here. More about that later.
Some of the pieces are specimens of a typical English genre: the anthem. This was the result of Henry VIII's breakaway from the Church of Rome. This had far-reaching consequences in liturgical matters. Motets in Latin, often on texts about the Virgin Mary, and settings of the Mass were no longer needed. Instead, composers were asked to write music on texts in the vernacular, either taken from the Bible or from the Book of Common Prayer. Anthems came in two forms: the full anthem to be sung by a choir, and the verse anthem, in which the different sections of a piece - in the case of a biblical text the successive verses - were to be performed in alternation by soloists and choir.
If ye love me by Thomas Tallis is a specimen of a full anthem. It is a rather simple and straightforward setting of the text for four voices. Another full anthem is Hosanna to the Son of David by Thomas Weelkes, which is in six parts and is more complex with regard to counterpoint. It is a setting of the words the people of Jerusalem used to greet Jesus entering Jerusalem shortly before his death. However, this text has always been associated with the coming of Christ in the flesh as well.
The two verse anthems by Orlando Gibbons are among the best-known of the English renaissance. This is the record of John is a setting of verses from the first chapter of the Gospel of John, in which John the Baptist is asked who he is and who then points in the direction of the coming Christ. The solo verses are sung by a single tenor; the choir repeats the last words of his verses. See, see, the word is incarnate is a setting of a text by Bishop Godfrey Goodman (1582/83-1656), which opens with a reference to the first verses from John's Gospel: "See, see, the Word is incarnate; God is made man in the womb of a virgin". It is certainly one of Gibbons's masterpieces, and this explains why it is so often performed. David Swinson, in his liner-notes, rightly states that it is more than just a piece for Advent and Chistmas. However, it fits well into this programme for Christmastide. A third piece by Gibbons, O thou the central orb, is a bit of an oddity in this programme of renaissance music. The reason is that Gibbons never set this text. In the form in which it is performed here, it is a contrafactum: the original text - O all true faithful hearts - was replaced in 1873 by a sonnet from the pen of Henry Ramsden Bramley. With this text it was published; the text has since been set several times.
Another typical English genre is the carol. Such pieces are known from earlier
in history; several recordings include specimens of the 14th and 15th
centuries (such as Gothic Voices' wonderful disc 'Nowell synge we bothe al and
som' by the Gothic Voices:
review). Two carols are included here. Remember, o thou man by Thomas Ravenscroft comprises six stanzas, which appeals to man to remember Adam's fall and to repent. It is a four-part homophonic piece, but here it is performed in the manner of a verse anthem, in which solo voices and choir alternate. Lesser-known is probably Christopher Tye's simple and short, but very nice A sound of angels from afar.
A genre which included both sacred and secular works was that of the consort song: a song for a solo voice and a consort of viols. Two such pieces are performed here. Out of the Orient, crystal skies is for solo voice and four viols; the text, about the wise men who visited Jesus after his birth, is anonymous and comprises six stanzas. Sweet was the song the virgin sang is an anonymous lullaby. It is taken from a lute book; here the solo voice is accompanied by viols.
As far as the performances are concerned, two features are especially noteworthy. First, this repertoire is mostly sung either by an ensemble of adults - female and male - or by a cathedral choir, often all male. What we have here is different: all singers are male, but the ensemble is much smaller than all-male cathedral choirs. Trinity Boys Choir EIGHT consists of eight trebles and altos, who sing here with either one or two voices to a part. They are joined by two tenors and two basses. This results in a wonderful sound, a remarkable rhythmic flexibility and an optimum transparency, which guarantees that the text is always clearly intelligible. I have nothing but praise for the singing of the ensemble as a whole, but also for the solo contributions of their individual members. In the two consort songs, the singing of the trebles Caspar Burman and Freddie Jemison is a pure delight.
The second feature is the participation of a consort of viols. That is obvious in the case of the consort songs, but less so in the verse anthems. Such pieces were mostly accompanied by organ, as this was the most common instrument in churches and chapels. A consort of viols was used in the Chapel Royal and in the chapels of the high aristocracy. This brings us to the concept behind this disc: this is not so much a Christmas celebration in a church, but rather in a domestic environment as David Swinson points out, talking about the last item in the programme: "This recording closes with a round on a verse from Psalm 42, Emitte lucem tuam et veritatem, and encourages the listener to imagine leaving a celebration in one of England's stately homes, having heard a variety of seasonal music from both the chapel and the hall." From that angle it made much sense to include consort music, even though some of the pieces have little or nothing to do with Christmastide, as well as two keyboard items played on a small chamber organ. L'Armonia Sonora and Siebe Henstra deliver top class performances of the instrumental items. The mixture of voices and viols is exquisite.
In the wake of a public performance of this combination of voices and instruments in the 2017 Utrecht Early Music Festival, it was the wish of Mieneke van der Velden, director of L'Armonia Sonora, to make a recording, and this is the result. This idea has been worked out very well, and the result is a disc which makes a lasting impression and is in several ways different from what is in the catalogue. I have greatly enjoyed this recording which will definitely be one of my favourite Christmas discs for the years to come.
Johan van Veen
Orlando GIBBONS (1583-1625)
This is the record of John [04:24]
William BYRD (1543-1623)
In Nomine [02:56]
Thomas WEELKES (1576-1623)
Hosanna to the Son of David [02:10]
Anthony HOLBORNE (c1545-1602)
Pavan The Cradle [03:17]
Thomas RAVENSCROFT (c1588-1635)
Remember, O thou man [03:51]
Galliard Lullabie [01:51]
Out of the Orient, crystal skies [03:45]
Thomas TALLIS (c1505-1585)
If ye love me [02:17]
[O thou, the central orb] [04:20]
Verse for Organ [01:50]
O nata lux de lumine [03:39]
Christopher TYE (c1505-1573)
In Nomine 'O Lux' [03:11]
John DOWLAND (1563-1626)
Mr Henry Noel his Galliard [02:07]
See, see, the Word is incarnate [06:45]
John TAVERNER (c1490-1545)
In Nomine [02:27]
A sound of angels from afar [01:17]
Clarifica me, Pater [01:50]
Sweet was the song the Virgin sung [03:35]
A round: Emitte lucem tuam et veritatem [02:00]