The music on this disc was recorded on the new Taylor & Boody organ (opus 66) at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge. The Gentlemen of the College Choir, conducted by David Skinner, provide plainsong in those pieces where its inclusion is appropriate. The instrument in question is comprehensively described by George Taylor in the accompanying booklet. Stephen Farr’s playing makes the best possible case for a selection of pieces that, if they are not all actual masterworks, are the works of masters.
He begins and ends appropriately with Byrd: first A voluntarie for my Ladye Nevell BK 61 and concluding with the Fancie BK 46 which is the penultimate piece in My Lady Nevells Booke; the latter contains what seems to be a fairly overt reference to the plainsong Salve Regina in the opening “alto” part. The earliest named composer is Tallis, and the alternate verses of his hymn Ecce tempus idoneum are chanted by the attendant Gentlemen. The neglected and underrated John Blitheman, one of Bull’s teachers, is represented by two of his settings of Gloria tibi trinitas (a.k.a. In nomine I and IV), while Bull himself provides the second of his several substantial In nomines plus the slighter Coranto joyeuse.
Indisputably the most monumental work from the Tudor and Jacobean repertory is Tomkins’ massive Offertory, timed here at 17’30”. (Bernhard Klapprott hurtles through it in a mere 16’29” during his recording of Tomkins’ complete keyboard music on MDG 607 0706-2 from 1997.) This wonderful and passionate peroration was quite recently found to have been based upon the theme to which Byrd set the words “Let me never be confounded” in the Te Deum from his Great Service, information that does not appear in Magnus Williamson’s fine notes. This is excusable because no mention is made of Stephen Jones’ discovery (published in 1993) at the appropriate point in the third revised edition of Tomkins’ complete keyboard music (Musica Britannica V, 2010), despite the fact that the editor had written an article in 1999, based around this very discovery. Stephen Farr compensates with a riveting interpretation of this masterwork. The youngest of the named composers is Orlando Gibbons, and he contributes one of his many fine fantasias, GK 9.
It remains to mention the two anonymous pieces selected by Stephen Farr. One is a Magnificat in which the Gentlemen sing alternate verses (Early English Church Music VI, no 4). This ascetic piece is the second longest on the disc, but such is the creativity (vivacious rhythms, striking themes, varied textures) of the composer (possibly Thomas Preston), and the responsiveness of the organist, that the time passes disappointingly quickly. Preston is also a candidate as composer of the other anonymous work, Bina caelestis II. This track was the catalyst for my deciding to purchase the disc. In the first edition of his early short study of Byrd written to coincide with his tercentenary in 1923, E.H. Fellowes attributed this and several other such pieces in British Library MS Add. 29996 (not as given in the notes) to Byrd, only to have to return them to anonymity in his major book on Byrd published in 1936. Beginning with what Tomkins noted as “a good 2 parts”, the piece develops melodically and harmonically, the gifted composer increasing the texture to three parts and finally four in a climax that sounds, in context, little short of a form of ecstasy. As someone with a low tolerance of plainsong, I found that the contribution of the College Gentlemen enhanced the overall structure of the piece – worthy of Byrd, even though not by him.
This is an outstanding recording that surpasses most of those based on this repertory and which have appeared on more prominent labels. The presentation is of a piece with the consistent excellence of the music and of Stephen Farr’s playing: by eschewing interpretational gestures he allows the music to speak through him all the more powerfully. The information about the organ and the music (the lacuna about Tomkins’ Offertory not being the fault of the author) is complemented by fine colour photographs. In all, this is the best disc of music from this rich repertory that I have encountered in a long time.