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I heard a voice
28 Dec 2011

“‘I Heard a Voice’: the Music of the Golden Age”

In contrast to much music-making on the continent, English composers born in the last quarter of the sixteenth century seem to have embraced a notable degree of stylistic continuity.

“‘I Heard a Voice’: the Music of the Golden Age”

Choir of King’s College, Cambridge; Fretwork; Stephen Cleobury,

EMI 0946 3 94430 2 4 [CD]

$15.99  Click to buy

Thus, in an anthology of the music of Thomas Weelkes, Orlando Gibbons, and Thomas Tomkins—composers active under both Elizabeth I and James I—we hear persistent echoes of Byrd and his generation, especially in formal procedures and harmonic and melodic idiom. And it is this repertory that the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge and the viol consort, Fretwork, address in their recording “I Heard a Voice.”

There a few surprises in either the selections or the performances. Both the choir and instrumental ensemble are in generally superb form, and works like Weelkes’s “Alleluia, I heard a voice,” Gibbons’s “This is the record of John,” and the settings of “When David heard” by Weelkes and Tomkins have long achieved an iconic familiarity. If the age was golden, then these are works that have repeatedly offered a degree of “gilty” pleasure.

Familiar, or no, the anthology is well constructed to show the range of the repertory. Several pieces fall into the category of “full anthem”—i.e., fully choral throughout—and among these are fine examples of the degree to which the busy bustle of ebullient lines was both exploited and artistically controlled by composers of the day. Gibbons’s “Hosanna to the Son of David” and similar works tend to sparkle here, though admittedly Cleobury maintains a tight rein: ecclesiastical propriety trumps unbounded effusion! Tomkins’s twelve-voice “O Praise the Lord” is the fullest of the full; surprisingly it emerges mired in an uncharacteristic muddiness that may ultimately have more to do with chapel acoustics than choral rendition.

As a foil to the ebullient anthems, several works underscore the melancholic, lamentative propensities of the age. The two settings of “When David heard”—the psalmist’s lament over the death of his son, Absalom—are exquisitely plaintive. The crystalline control of the choral sound brings the poignance into an intense focus, and the affective power of these gestures creates some of the most memorable moments of the recording.

The collaborations with viols are an important reminder that an important part of this repertory figured in domestic devotional settings, apart from the chapel. Weelkes’s “Most mighty and all knowing Lord” is a strophic consort song that would have easily graced less formal venues, and is engagingly sung by alto David Allsopp. “Verse anthems”—anthems alternating instrumentally accompanied solo sections with choral sections—often survive in versions for both organ or viol consort, suggestive of chapel and domestic performance. Arguably the best known example is Gibbons’s brilliant “This is the record of John.” Performed here in the familiar viol version, an otherwise strong rendition is besmirched by an excess of vibrato in the solo tenor that detracts from the ensemble blend and shaping of contours.

Such missteps are few. “I heard a voice” presents one of the standard bearers of the English choral tradition in a repertory that surely lies close to its heart. And given that, it is no surprise that it is a recording to savor.

Steven Plank

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