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The Sweetest Songs - Music From the Baldwin Partbooks III Robert WHITE (c. 1535-1574)
Domine, non est exaltatum [8:43]
Portio mea [6:41] William BYRD (1539/40-1623)
Tristitia et anxietas [9:35]
Peccavi super numerum [6:00]
Ne perdas cum impiis [4:52] John MUNDY (c. 1555-1630)
In te Domine speravi [8:02] Anonymous
Confitebor tibi Domine [3:36] Robert PARSONS (c. 1535-1571/2)
Domine quis habitabit [3:56] William MUNDY (c. 1528-c. 1591)
Memor esto verbi tui [7:13] John SHEPPARD (c. 1515-1558)
Confitebor tibi Domine [6:14] William DAMAN (c. 1540-1591)
Confitebor tibi Domine [2:25]
Recorded in the Church of St Michael and All Angels, Oxford, 19-21 April 2016 SIGNUM CLASSICS SIGCD633 [67:23]
This is the final, much anticipated part of Contrapunctus’ three-part exploration of the Baldwin partbooks, one of the most important sources of polyphony to come down from Tudor times, often containing the only extant text of certain music. Parts one and two had particular thematic focuses, and so, too, does this one: in this case it is the Psalm motet, a peculiarly English mode of choral worship which sets Latin verses of psalms as motets. That aspect unifies the disc, but is sufficiently diverse to allow a wide range of moods and themes to occur in each number.
It’s Contrapunctus at their best again. With only eleven singers listed in the booklet (and often using far fewer), they conjure up a phenomenally beautiful sound picture that evokes a lost world of Renaissance spirituality and soaring ecclesiastical architecture, the lines of polyphony cascading over one another like the levels of a waterfall. Glorious harmonies combine with exquisite precision to produce music that is artistically and spiritually delectable, and the beauty of Signum’s recording in the Oxford acoustic plays its part, too. Owen Rees directs the singers with clean sensibility and a fluid sense of line. This is clearly a labour of love for him, shown not only in his sympathetic direction but by his reconstruction of the (lost) tenor parts for many of these releases.
Byrd is the composer most represented on the disc. His Tristitia et anxietas, is full of distilled anguish, meditating on the sorrowful soul and God’s provision in loss. Byrd uses only male voices for this motet, a choice that makes a huge difference to the sound; but even when he includes sopranos, as he does in the similarly themed Peccavi super numerum, the music remains dark hued and no less compelling. There is a similar sense of pleading in Byrd’s Ne perdas cum impiis, brought to life with humanity and spiritual insight.
However, the more optimistic texts sound just as wonderful. John Mundy’s In te Domine speravi rings out with crystalline lucidity, and there is a glorious sense of optimism to Robert Parsons’ Domine quis habitabit with its meditation on the path of the righteous. That motet seems to gaze upwards towards those heavenly dwelling places it sings of, and there is a lighter, more airborne choral sound to go with it. Sheppard’s Confitebor tibi Domine has a glorious, resounding structure, as does William Daman’s setting of the same text, and gems like that of the anonymous composer make you wonder what other gifted composers have had their names forgotten by history.
Robert White’s Portio mea is a beautiful way to end the disc. The focused singing, exquisite in its precision, seems to burrow into the spirituality of the text, the solos ringing out with unfeasible clarity, and it led me as a listener to reflect not only on how lucky we are that the Baldwin partbooks survived, but how fortunate we are that they have such convincing advocates today.
I gave our “Recommended” award to parts one and two of this trilogy, and it seems only right to complete the hat trick by doing so again. In our time of stress, anxiety and anguish, this music is like balm for the soul, and it sounds sensationally good in the way these artists have brought it to life.