Æternum

Music of the Elizabethan Avant Garde from Add. MS 31390
LeStrange Viols
66:22
Olde Focus FCR912

In 2015 the excellent LeStrange Viols, from New York, placed us all in their debt with a fine debut disc of rewarding music composed by the neglected but estimable William Cranford (FCR905). Now they compound our debt by offering this selection from a manuscript in the British Library which is one of the most important of Elizabethan musical sources.

Why open the disc with the premiere on disc of In aeternum? It is a neglected work by the similarly neglected William Mundy, which survives only in this source, one of several with a Latin title but no text (like his O mater mundi  recorded by Hesperion XX) so it could be an instrumental fantasia or a choral motet. So why the sudden prominence? Probably because LeStrange Viols want listeners to discover that this is a work of surpassing beauty, and they play it accordingly. This is followed by the famous, or perhaps infamous, In nomine by the otherwise unknown Picforth. It is his only known work, but even his Christian name has not survived. Each of the five parts plays a single unchanging rhythmic value different from all other parts, yet this literally timeless work hangs together convincingly and mesmerizingly, sounding in many places like a cross between the famous Lento  of Howard Skempton and the studies for player piano by Conlon Nancarrow. In other recordings the “alto” part, which is in triple time and gives rise to more syncopations that the rest, is not always audible under the more active “treble”, but here the LeStranges play every part except the cantus firmus itself pizzicato. This could emerge as a mere gimmick, but it successfully points up what Picforth is up to here, and although it sacrifices some of the sonorousness of his part- writing, it achieves a scintillating clarity. Other interpretations are available.

Altogether there are 26 pieces on this recording, but before moving on to summarize the rest of the contents, I will mention the third work, partly to emphasize that the disc gets off to such a stunning start. This is John Taverner’s Quemadmodum, another work with a Latin title but for which no text survives in any source. Like Mundy’s In aeternum  it has been editorially fitted out in more than one edition with a convincing Latin text for vocal performance. If it is indeed by Taverner, it must be a late work judging by its stylistic debt to the Franco-Flemish school, and whether instrumental or vocal, it is one of the composer’s finest, and one of the best works of the Tudor period. Previous recordings by viols have all failed to do justice to Taverner’s wonderfully expressive part-writing in relation to the sonorities that he creates, but LeStrange’s interpretation is on a level with the best of those choral versions recorded by Contrapunctus, Magnificat and the Taverner Choir. The descending phrase that begins its second part “Sitivit anima mea” seems to have been borrowed by Byrd to begin the second part “Eheu mihi” of his eight-part psalm setting Ad Dominum cum tribularer.

I want to digress here briefly to discuss the attribution of Quemadmodum to Taverner, in the light of the work’s proximity on this disc to Mundy’s In aeternum  and their being in the same manuscript. There are many similarities between the two pieces, the most striking being the recurrence in both pieces, especially in In aeternum, of the short phrase a b c a (at whichever pitch, the second note sometimes flattened, the third sometimes sharp, though obviously not in the same phrase) which often proceeds again to b, hence a b c a b. Doubts have been expressed over the attribution of Quemadmodum  to Taverner, not least by Hugh Benham in his book about the composer (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2003, p. 249) who notes that one source (WB MCG) attributes it to Tye. It is in fact anonymous in 31390 itself. This leaves two other sources, in both of which it is attributed to Taverner (Benham, p. 57). Mundy’s In aeternum  survives only in 31390. Other pieces by Mundy and works by Tye also appear in 31390, as well as the original In nomine, here correctly attributed to Taverner and with a fifth part added. Quemadmodum  which as we have seen is anonymous in 31390, is Taverner’s most uncharacteristic work, if it is indeed by him. Tye is an even less likely composer, and nobody yet has proposed Mundy, but Quemadmodum  seems a little too old-fashioned to be by the same composer as In aeternum. Perhaps Mundy, younger by three decades, was impressed by Quemadmodum  – a cutting edge composition by English standards if by Taverner – and was inspired to incorporate some of its features, particularly melodies and sonorities, into his own work, while still imposing his own more modern stamp upon the latter.

The rest of the disc consists of either mainstream consort works, such as In nomines (highlights are the two pieces in seven parts by Parsons, the first of which has an alternative but discredited attribution to Byrd), and textless pieces that are known, or presumed, to have been composed for voices. One of the many charms of this disc is that several of the composers, like Picforth, are quite obscure, yet their music is most enjoyable. Edward Blankes, Clement Woodcock, Nicholas Strogers, Osbert Parsley, Mallorie and Brewster all receive their well-deserved day in the sun with some delightful consort music, and there are also appearances by prominent European composers such as Clemens, Croce, Wilder (albeit he was based in England) and Janequin, besides the less familiar Flemish composer Jacquet de Berchem – not to be confused with the now better-known older French contemporary Jacquet of Mantua. The majority of the Europeans’ works represented here are instrumental versions of songs.

It remains to mention three motets by major English composers which survive with their Latin texts but which appear in 31390 in an ostensibly instrumental garb. Sheppard’s Dum transisset  a6 is a Respond of surpassing beauty. The repeats are not included, neither is the intervening plainsong, but this still makes for a satisfying musical entity. Byrd is represented by two pieces. His first In nomine in five parts (an attribution to Mundy in one source is scored out) might originally have been composed for only four, with a fifth added possibly by the composer himself. The performance here is strikingly rustic compared with the urbanity of Fretwork’s version on their complete recording of Byrd’s consort music; interestingly Phantasm eschew the work altogether both on their own complete recording, and on their earlier disc which Byrd shares with Richard Mico, perhaps favouring the deleted attribution to Mundy. O salutaris hostia  is by a country mile Byrd’s – and indeed most other Tudor composers’ – most discordant piece, as the young musician – perhaps playfully, perhaps satirically, certainly determinedly – bulldozes a three-part canon through the work. More peacefully, Tallis’s O sacrum convivium is the most familiar of such pieces on the recording, but still disconcerting in this version not just for the ironed-out word-setting, but for some strikingly different accidentals, both present and absent in 31390, compared with the more familiar vocal version from his Cantiones sacrae  published jointly with Byrd in 1575.

LeStrange Viols’ performances are all that one could desire. This really is a delightful disc from beginning to end – the exuberant Me li Bavari  by Croce. Tempi are judicious, and balance such that all the parts can be heard clearly in both the prevailing polyphony and in the more occasional homophony. Nearly all the viols played are from the Caldwell Collection of Viols (in Oberlin, OH), instruments of the 16-18th centuries from England, Germany, France and Brabant. This recording is easy to obtain on the internet, and well worth purchasing.

Richard Turbet

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4.8