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See, See, the Word is Incarnate
The Chapel Choir of Trinity Hall, Cambridge
Newe Vialles
Orpheus Britannicus Vocal Consort/Andrew Arthur
Henk Klop (chamber organ)
rec. Chapel of Jesus College, Cambridge, 28–30 August 2019 Tuning: a=466' (Sixth-Comma meantone)
Texts included
Reviewed as downloaded from press preview
RESONUS RES10295 [70:51]

I had originally intended to include this in my planned annual survey of Christmas music. It opens and closes with music by Orlando Gibbons for Advent and Christmas, but its appeal is wider than just the seasonal, placing the music of Gibbons – arguably the greatest of the early composers for the Anglican church after Tallis and Byrd – in context with two of his talented contemporaries, their music collectively spanning the latter years of Queen Elizabeth and the first part of the seventeenth century. Tomkins, the longest lived of them all, died during the parliamentary interregnum when his beloved church music was banned. One of his best-known pieces, not included here, speaks of ‘these distracted times’ – it’s recorded on another Resonus album, with music by William and Henry Lawes, Matthew Locke and others (RES10194 – review).

The obvious recent comparison for the new recording comes from Signum’s series of pre-restoration verse anthems In Chains of Gold. Volume 1 is devoted to the complete consort anthems of Orlando Gibbons, including three of the works included on the new Resonus. The opening This is the record of John, based on the Gospel reading for the fourth and final Sunday in Advent, is probably his best-known – and his best – work. It’s an example of what has come to be known as a Verse Anthem, alternating between a solo singer and full choir, as opposed to a Full Anthem in which the choir sing throughout. It would be difficult to adopt a radical re-interpretation for such a well-known piece, and there’s very little to choose between Robin Blaze here and Charles Daniels on Signum, or, indeed, between the Trinity Hall Choir and the Magdalena Consort. The Signum team push the music a little harder than on Resonus, as does another Cambridge choir, St John’s (Advent Live, Signum – review review), and Daniels is marginally more forward than Blaze, but it would be hard to prefer one to the other.

If, like me, you first got to know the music of Gibbons from David Willcocks with King’s College Choir, returning to their account of This is the record of John will be rather salutary. Though the overall timing is actually slightly faster than on the new Resonus, the over-plummy diction and the lack of momentum belong in the past. I’m sure that Christ Church choir at the ‘other’ place when I was an undergraduate sixty years ago sounded much the same, but fashions have moved on. There’s no way to determine how Gibbons would have heard this piece, or even how the words were pronounced then, but I turn back to Willcocks’ Gibbons reluctantly now (Heritage HTGCD226). When I reviewed an Alto CD which includes this recording, in 2013, I found myself less at ease than I had been hearing it from an earlier Beulah reissue. Another eight years on, I’m even more inclined to advise readers to ‘look elsewhere’ - to the Signum or Resonus, for example.

In See, see the Word is incarnate Willcocks at 7:10 is actually faster than Andrew Arthur and his team on Resonus, but the effect is dreary, and not just because of the dated recording. Again, despite the difference in tempo – more urgent on Signum, more contemplative on the new Resonus – I would happily take either of the new recordings in preference to these voices from the past. Of all the biblical accounts of the Incarnation, John’s, on which this anthem is based, lends itself well to the contemplative treatment on Resonus. In any case, there’s plenty of energy at the words ‘Let us welcome such a guest’ and it rounds off the Resonus album in style.

I would not want to be without the all-Gibbons Signum recording or its successor (SIGCD609 – review), but the new Resonus covers three other composers not (yet, I hope) included in the Signum series. Gibbons’ short settings of the Evensong canticles, Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis, are offered alongside the longer settings of Thomas Weelkes ‘for trebles’. The Signum Gibbons doesn’t include the canticles, and I don’t know any other recording which juxtaposes them with the Weelkes settings. Indeed, there seems to be only one other currently available recording of the latter, though there are several of his five-part setting, so the new recording is valuable for these alone. Once again, the performances are contemplative rather than urgent, which is not inappropriate for Mary pondering the meaning of the angel’s salutation or the aged Simeon singing his swansong. They certainly make a strong case for regarding Weelkes as a composer of substance in his own right.

Most of the Tomkins pieces are instrumental, but the performance of My shepherd is the living Lord may well make you wish to hear more of his choral music. A good way to do that would be from a Hyperion Helios recording of his Cathedral Music from St George’s Chapel, Windsor and Christopher Robinson (CDH55066) or from an earlier Resonus release from HM Chapel Royal, Hampton Court (RES10253 – review). The Resonus recording of My shepherd is preferable to the Hyperion, but the Hyperion is well worth its modest price on CD or as a download from . Played at the same volume setting as the Resonus, it sounds a little under-nourished, so I recommend listening at a higher level.

The opening and closing Gibbons anthems make the new Resonus release especially attractive for Christmas, but it should continue to give considerable satisfaction throughout the whole year. In some cases I found myself preferring a slightly more impulsive performance, but not such as to rule out these Trinity Hall recordings. With no alternative recording offering this combination of these three great late Elizabethan and Stuart composers, it’s very worthwhile. And if you are looking for a specifically festal recording of music from this period, Weelkes To shorten winters sadnesse features with music by Byrd, Holborne and Pearson on a fine recording from Helen Charlston (mezzo) and Fretwork on Music for an Elizabethan Christmas (Signum SIGCD680).  That recording, which also includes the second of Gibbons Fantasias for the grand dooble bass (No.1 is on the Resonus album) will be featuring in my 2021 Christmas round-up.

Brian Wilson

Orlando GIBBONS (1583-1625)
This is the Record of John [5:06]
Thomas TOMKINS (1572-1656)
Voluntary in C [3:46]
‘Short’ Evening Service: I. Magnificat [3:31]
Thomas WEELKES (1576-1623)
In Nomine a5, Vdgs 1 [2:48]
‘Short’ Evening Service: II. Nunc dimittis [3:13]
A Substantial Verse [6;19]
My shepherd is the living Lord [4:18]
Fantasia VII a3, Vdgs 9 [3:11]
Verse in a [1:48]
O Lord, in thy wrath rebuke me not [4:00]
Voluntary I [2:21]
Evening Verse Service ‘for Trebles’: I. Magnificat [5:52]
Voluntary in D [2:16]
Evening Verse Service ‘for Trebles’: II. Nunc dimittis [4:45]
Fantasia a4 ‘for the great dooble bass’, Vdgs 1 [5:44]
Voluntary in A [3;29]
See, see, the Word is incarnate [8:14]

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