In the midst of life: Music from the Baldwin Partbooks I

Contrapunctus, Owen Rees
68:18
Signum Records SIGCD408
Byrd Audivi vocem, Circumdederunt me dolores mortis Gerarde Sive vigilem Mundy Sive vigilem Parsons Credo quod redemptor, Libera me Domine, Peccantem me quotidie Sheppard Media vita Tallis Nunc dimittis Taverner Quemadmodum

Like his counterpart in Scotland Thomas Wode, John Baldwin is among a handful of musicians whom we have to thank for the preservation of the treasury of sixteenth-century choral music. Baldwin was particularly diligent, recording almost 170 works from early in the century right up to his own lifetime in the last quarter of the 1500s, many of which survive as unique copies. Most of the output of John Sheppard survives this way, although the loss of the tenor partbook has necessitated the reconstruction of that voice, leading to Sheppard somewhat ‘missing the bus’ in the revival in the middle of the last century of interest in Tudor church music. Contrapunctus under their enterprising director, Owen Rees, are devoting a series of CDs to these important partbooks, grouping their programmes by theme. It may seem perverse to start with death, but its ubiquity and immediacy for Tudor composers has led to a particularly fine and poignant body of music remaining from the time.

The undeniable jewel in the crown of this selection is Sheppard’s magisterial setting of Media vita which gives the CD its title, but the chief joy for me were the one or two works with which I was hitherto unfamiliar, such as William Byrd’s Circumdederunt me dolores mortis, which opens the programme, and the powerful Sive vigilem by the Flemish émigré Dericke Gerarde. The singing throughout is consistently full-toned and focussed, but essentially for this repertoire constantly ready with expressive crescendos and decrescendos to mark textual changes in mood. With its nine highly experienced singers (boosted to ten for the larger works) Contrapunctus is the ideal group for this superb repertoire, and I look forward with eager anticipation to future CDs in this series.

D. James Ross

An absolutely superb disc, both musically and musicologically. John Baldwin was a layclerk at St George’s Chapel, Windsor at the time these five (originally six – the tenor is missing) partbooks were copied, between about 1575 and 1581. They contain a huge range of Latin-texted music, ranging in period from Taverner to Byrd, much of it uniquely preserved. The present recording takes as its theme music “concerned with mortality- the fear of death and eternal torment, anticipation of the Day of Judgement, and the soul’s longing to meet God” and includes settings from the Catholic Office of the Dead, as well as penitential motets, perhaps for private Recusant use after the Reformation. With pieces (and performances) of such uniformly high quality, it is difficult to single out any one especially, though Dericke Gerarde was a new name for me; his wonderfully expansive and expressive setting of Sive Vigilem is one I shall be replaying often! The recital appropriately concludes with John Sheppard’s massive and magnificent Media Vita – listen out for the wonderful final verse, with its typically English gimell in both the treble and mean, supported by the bass, far below. Extraordinary music, gloriously performed!

Alastair Harper