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Michael EAST (c. 1580-1648) Amavi: Music for Viols and Voices
Fieri Consort, Chelys Consort of Viols
rec. August 2018, at Girton Chapel, Cambridge, UK BIS BIS2503 SACD [71:14]
Michael East, a Londoner, was the son of Thomas East, a music publisher and printer. We know next to nothing about Michael’s life and career. He may have known Thomas Morley, so one wonders if he might have been a pupil.
The earliest music on this disc is, I assume, Hence Stars, a five-part madrigal from the collection ‘The Triumphs of Oriana’ which Thomas East published in 1601 under Morley’s guidance. If the date of Michael East’s birth is correct, he was then a young man learning the craft of composition. Maybe he had to take his time to compose the piece, and that explains its late arrival. As Morley tells us, that is why he was forced to place it at the head of the publication. I should imagine, however, that the young composer must have been quite ‘chuffed’ by that, and perhaps it may even have been deliberate. I have always considered it one of the best in the book of twenty-five pieces, and this sensitive performance seems to agree.
Michael East was quite prolific. As a publisher himself, he could afford to put out his own works at a lower cost. His other publications, little known now, are a 1604 set of madrigals in 3, 4 and 5-parts, a second book of 1606, and a third of 1610 with anthems and pastorals. He was then still, apparently, only thirty. A fourth book appeared in 1619. Curiously, 1618 saw the fifth book, of light
3-part pieces; rather oddly, they are only given as titles but no further texts, so perhaps they are instrumental works. So we have madrigals, verse anthems and music of viol consort recorded here. East ended his days as organist at Lichfield Cathedral. As a boy, I remember well his name on a memorial plaque to the cathedral organists, which we walked past most days.
I have added the publication dates of the vocal works in the track listing below. Sometimes the viols accompany, sometimes they simply support, sometimes the performances are a capella. As Alison Kinder (booklet writer and member of the Chelys Consort) notes, this is the way to interpret the composer’s term ‘Music for Voices and Viols’.
Six pieces for viol consort, with Latin names, come from East’s fourth book of 1610. Each has been carefully placed to fit emotionally with the following vocal work. To quote Alison Kinder’s useful booklet essay, these pieces trace “a path from despair and sin through revelation, repentance and belief, to life”. So Desperavi (meaning approximately ‘despaired’) precedes the tragedy of King David’s lament for Absalom; the words were also set by Tomkins and Weelkes. Peccavi (‘sinned’) precedes words from Psalm 51 Turn thy face from my wickedness, O Lord. The title piece, Amavi (‘loved’), appropriately precedes the Ascension time motet God is gone up.
The sacred works here are verse anthems. A simple example like O Lord onwhom I depend will do to explain that the text is first given by the soloists, in this case two sopranos, immediately followed by an SATB rendition of the words. It is accompanied by the viol consort, although these anthems could be accompanied by an organ. This anthem consists of just one verse but there are longer examples by Orlando Gibbons and Pelham Humphrey (composed not only during the reign of James I but also Charles I). East’s O Clap your hands has first two sopranos followed by a tutti, then two male voices followed by a tutti.
The last track is quite a novelty: Jill Jarman’s setting of a text by Sir Henry Brown, a contemporary of Michael East. Jarman is a composer and a jazz pianist. I remember hearing her St. George’s Mass a few years ago. Now are my thoughts at peace has swirling and vibrant writing for the viols, which supports and comments on the sensitive but succinct setting of the text. No pastiche, this piece is highly approachable and yet original and beguiling.
One especial reason why this disc is highly recommendable is the Fieri Consort (a group new to me) established in 2012. The singing is clear, well focused, beautifully phrased, and has a fresh but highly expressive sound. Add to it the warmth of the Chelys Consort of Viols and the fine recorded balance when they play together, and you get one for the most pleasing discs to have come my way for some months.
I am sure this release will give great pleasure to you too unless you have a real ‘thing’ against English music of that period. I have only one regret, especially as the madrigals Farewell sweet woods and When I Lament are so deliciously beautiful, as is the rather sombre Life tell me what is the cause: that a further space could not have been found for another madrigal, say an early one, perhaps one of the twenty-four from East’s 1604 book, to act as a contrast. The style and mood of these madrigals, from later in East’s career, are more Wilbye than Morley.
The disc comes in a space-saving, thin cardboard casing (which seems to be increasingly the fashion). There are colour photos of the two groups of performers, and an inserted booklet with the essay noted above, a reproduction of a page from the original publication and all of the texts.
Well worth searching out. But next, could these musicians consider recording a mix of pieces by East’s fascinating contemporary Francis Pilkington?
When David heard (1619) [4:52]
Turn thy face (1610) [3:25]
O give me comfort of thy help again (1610) part 2 of track 4 [3:13]
Hence Stars too dime of light (1601) [2:15]
Farewell Sweet Woods (1619)
O Lord of whom I do depend (1619) [2:00]
Life tell me (1610) [2:50]
O Clap your hands (1619) [3:23]
God is gone up ((1619) part 2 of track 15 [3:22]
When I Lament (1619) [2:46] Jill JARMAN (b. 1959)
Now my thoughts at peace [4:52]