In Chains of Gold: The English Pre-Restoration Verse Anthem Vol. 1

Orlando Gibbons – Complete Consort Anthems
Fretwork, His Majesty’s Sagbutts and Cornetts, Magdalena Consort
Signum Classics, SIGCD 511

This splendid recording of all Orlando Gibbons’ Consort Anthems, the brain-child of the knowledgeable and experienced Bill Hunt and the Orlando Gibbons project, is the first in what promises to be a definitive series of this highly English art form that flourished in the increasingly troubled years of the first half of the 17th century, when private chapels hosted much of the quality ecclesiastical music-making.

The collaboration between Fretwork and His Majesty’s Sagbutts and Cornetts ensures playing of both wind and viol consort of world class standard, but what is exciting in this first CD is the quality of the singers assembled by Peter Harvey, and their attention to the sound-world of the contrasting groups of instrumentalists, used together only in Lord, grant grace. At the forefront of their concerns is the proper rhetorical declamation of the words, so we have a serious demonstration of what would have been called in contemporary Italy the seconda prattica. Here this word-based music is inspired by the verbal finesse of the texts, set with due regard for the 1559 Elizabethan injunction “that the same may be as plainly understanded as if it were read without singing”.

The erudite – and sometimes over-fancifully-expressed – notes by David Pinto, whose 2003 editions for Fretwork are used here, chart the context of these compositions. They centre on the Chapel Royal, and Pinto makes a good case for using both wind and viol consorts. Gibbons worked in the Chapel with Launcelot Andrewes, possibly the Church of England’s greatest wordsmith after Cranmer, and we see Gibbons apply a sensitivity to setting the texts that set new standards for declamatory composition that was taken up by his contemporaries like Thomas Tomkins. The combination of A=466 and the conviction that the basic vocal group should respect the clef and pitch of the composer’s intentions give us that essential singing group of Soprano or Mean, Contra or High Tenors, Low Tenor/Baritone and Bass. This vocal consort matches the rich instrumental textures admirably and is provided by Peter Harvey’s splendidly balanced Magdalena Consort. Singing groups who overload their top lines in the tradition of cathedral choirs, or who raise the pitch to make room for 18th-century-style falsettists, take note!

The elegant restraint showed by every singer in matching not only their tone but their volume to that of the halo of instruments in the single voice or duet passages only very occasionally, when singers and players are going at full tilt, gives way to the temptation to oversing. Just occasionally – as, for example, in the Gloria of Blessed are all they that fear the Lord  – this runs the risk of defeating the careful balance between voices and instruments. The desire to sing out – to make sure that your line is clearly audible – is so often just what singers feel is natural to do, and what indeed so many directors encourage them to do. The sense that your singers can notch up a gear without running the risk of vulgar, quasi-operatic distortion is almost too great to resist. But this is just the moment to urge restraint. None is necessary when the limpid Charles Daniels – peerless in this clean and intricate figuration, as in This is the record of John  – or the two upper voices of Eleanor Minney and Sam Boden in Lord, grant grace  are singing so perfectly together, but very occasionally I longed to say ‘Hold it: if you all sing out like that, the texture is getting too thick, and I can hear less, not more, of the exquisite lines.’ I experienced a touch of that over-ripeness from the upper voices of Catherine King and Eleanor Minney in the full sections of O all true and faithful hearts. Perhaps when they felt competition from the cornetti?

This elegant restraint is what comes naturally to consort players, who spend their time listening to each other, pulling back from the long, held notes, and waiting for the moment when they lead off in some short note-value thread of imitative writing where the figuration leads to an expressive syllable or word when the line is vocalised.

This – in a fine quotation from Morley’s Plaine and Easie Introduction  – is just what Hunt puts on the title page, and is worth quoting here in full:

“ …to return to the expressing of the ditty, the matter is now come to that state that though a song be never so well made and never so aptly applied to the words yet shall you hardly find singers to express it as it ought to be, for most of our churchmen, so that they can cry louder in their choir than their fellows, care for no more, whereas by the contrary they ought to study how to vowel and sing clean, expressing their words with devotion and passion whereby to draw the hearer, as it were, in chains of gold by the ears to the consideration of holy things.”

This is the finest recording of this quintessentially English music that we are likely to have, and I urge everyone to start collecting these volumes as they appear over the coming years. This is a real treat, and an impressive master-class in how these texts should be declaimed.

David Stancliffe