Early Music: new Radio 3 series celebrates the pioneers
Inspired by the series? Explore a decade of Gramophone Early Music Award winners
Early Music pioneer Dame Emma Kirkby receiving this year’s Lifetime Achievement Award (photo: Tom Askew-Miller)
This Sunday, BBC Radio 3 launches a new six-part series exploring the pioneering performers and leading recording artists in the field of Early Music. Called ‘The Future of the Past’, it is presented by Sir Nicholas Kenyon, Managing director of London’s Barbican, and former Controller of BBC Radio 3 and Director of the BBC Proms.
The series will trace the development of interest in, and the approach of performers to, Early Music, right from the compelling exploration of medieval music by David Munrow half a century ago, through the work of conductors in the 1970s and ’80s such as Trevor Pinnock, Christopher Hogwood, Roger Norrington and Andrew Parrott, up to the major recording projects led by leading figures today such as Paul McCreesh and John Butt. Questions about what authenticity means, how Early Music was presented and promoted, why the music made such an impact on a record-collecting public, and where today’s trends are heading, will all be explored.
‘The Future of the Past’ begins on Sunday November 3, at 11pm, and will be available on BBC Sounds.
Foremost among great Early Music recordings artists is the soprano Dame Emma Kirkby, who received our Lifetime Achievement Award this year – Sir Nicholas Kenyon paid tribute to the extraordinary singer in our Awards edition, and you can read his article here.
Every year, Gramophone celebrates the finest Early Music recordings in our Gramophone Awards, voted on by our world-leading experts. If you’re inspired to explore music of the era further, an excellent place to start are the past decade of winners in the Early Music category:
Early Music Award Winners (1999-2019)
Cardoso Requiem. Lamentations. Magnificat. Motets
Cupertinos / Luís Toscano
It’s not difficult to understand why this recording has topped the poll of Gramophone’s reviewers: ‘Golden Age’ Iberian polyphony has a special place in the affections of modern-day audiences, and few of its composers leap off the page quite as distinctively as Cardoso. The four-voice Requiem is remarkable for the sonority achieved with pretty much the lightest scoring then in use; his trademark chromatic touches, while not as arresting as in his six-voice setting, make their point. Of course, the sense that more parts sound than there actually are owes as much to the performers as to the composer. Cupertinos’ bright, lucid envelope counterbalances the music’s austerity, with details firmly in place; a fine sense of pacing continues in the selection of motets. This is the group’s first recording for Hyperion and it is a pleasure to have a Portuguese ensemble tackle its native repertory. The sound is bright and privileges the higher voices, the lower ones being light baritones rather than basses. The timbre of the female altos, especially in their lower register, isn’t quite familiar from other continental ensembles or English ones. All the same, it’s comparatively rare for the Early Music Award to go to non-Anglophone artists performing non-English repertory.
Following Blue Heron’s success last year, it’s good to see relatively unheralded ensembles recognised at the highest level. There’s still room for Cupertinos to deepen their game, so it will be fascinating to hear what they do next. Fabrice Fitch
‘Music from the Peterhouse Partbooks, Vol 5’
Blue Heron / Scott Metcalfe
Has a Gramophone Award ever gone to a recording whose centrepiece is a large-scale work by an anonymous composer, or on which vanishingly little is known of the named figures? It wouldn’t be the only one of this recording’s ‘firsts’: never before has the Early Music Award gone to an American ensemble.
Reviewing it last year I predicted that I wouldn’t be alone in thinking this ‘one of the discoveries of the year’, and so it has proved. Emerging from an outstanding shortlist, this is an exceptionally confident recording in the service of equally confident music.
The programme consists entirely of music from the Peterhouse Partbooks, much of which was unperformable until recently and therefore the preserve of specialists; but the repertory was that of pre-Reformation Canterbury Cathedral, so its pedigree could hardly be more distinguished. Nonetheless, it’s a token of Blue Heron’s achievement and the artistic vision of its Director, Scott Metcalfe, that such unheralded music should shine so brightly. The all-vocal programme gives space to the singers individually, but, just as in the best chamber music, the ensemble is more than the sum of its parts. Another prediction: those who’ve not heard Blue Heron before are in for a surprise. Fabrice Fitch
Dowland Lachrimae, or Seaven Teares
Phantasm with Elizabeth Kenny lute
Followers of Phantasm will be shedding tears of joy at the news that Dowland’s Lachrimae has won this year’s Early Music Award. The critical reception since its release has been universally glowing, and, it should be said, some of the most perceptive insights came from our own Lindsay Kemp, writing in July 2016. Phantasm is no stranger to the Gramophone Awards, having been a frequent finalist in both the Early Music and Baroque Instrumental categories as well as a previous winner of both awards for its recordings of Gibbons (2004) and Purcell (1997).
Among Phantasm’s defining strengths are the clarity, vision and determination of its leader, Laurence Dreyfus. Blessed with a formidable intellect, acute musical sensibilities, insatiable curiosity and a measure of self-belief, he chose to challenge an already crowded field of professional viol consorts specialising in the Elizabethan and Jacobean repertoires by putting together a crack ensemble of players after his own heart who could play as one and with whom he could develop freshly informed performances of the highest calibre.
Over the years, Dreyfus’s gifts for teaching and research made him welcome in some of the finest British and American academic institutions where the marriage of musical performance and scholarship is encouraged. In that environment, musicians like Dreyfus are encouraged to delve deeper, to test and refine their interpretations before committing them to disc, a luxury most professional performers can ill afford. This approach is precisely what marks out Phantasm’s Dowland recording from many of those issued from the mid-1980s onwards. Phantasm inevitably stands on the shoulders of its predessors, relying on Lynda Sayce and David Pinto’s 2004 Fretwork edition of the music and Peter Holman’s indispensable 1999 handbook, Dowland: Lachrimae (1604). Another veteran of a previous Lachrimae recording, the lutenist Elizabeth Kenny, makes a thoughtfully judged contribution to this disc.
Lindsay Kemp’s assessment is worthy of reprise: ‘Phantasm’s performances are totally convincing and absorbing. Drawing richly on their depth, intensity and homogeneity of tone, their acuity to the music’s ever-active emotional flux leaves them unafraid to use forceful gestures of articulation and dynamics to make a point.’ Julie Anne Sadie
Taverner Choir & Players / Andrew Parrott
Barely 20 bars in length, who could have guessed that the 16th-century popular song ‘Western wynde, when wilt thou blow’ would yield such a musical legacy? Certainly not its anonymous author. Borrowed as the theme of Mass settings by Taverner, Tye and Sheppard, the verse even reappeared in the 20th century as the basis for a movement of Stravinsky’s Cantata. It’s this song that forms the keystone of this superb and wide-ranging recording by Andrew Parrott and his Taverner Choir & Players – less a recording of a Mass than a portrait of a period.
As the first secular song to be adapted in England for sacred use, ‘Western wynde’ is a touchstone of its age, a musical portal Parrott uses thoughtfully to explore not just the liturgical polyphony and plainchant but also the courtly songs, dances and keyboard music of Taverner and his contemporaries, including William Cornysh the Younger and Henry VIII himself. Some of these works are interpolated between the Mass movements, a decision purists may find contentious but which makes for a much more satisfying listening experience, shaking the ear up with shifting textures and setting sacred against secular in satisfying friction.
Andrew Parrott’s relationship with this repertoire is a long and intimate one, and his young vocal forces blend this experience and sense of long-form musical architecture with a freshness of tone that favours a forthright directness in tutti sections – a more muscular Christianity than either The Tallis Scholars or The Sixteen find in their more other-worldly treatments. Verse sections do offer a more fluid, horizontal emphasis, and the freshness of these solo voices offers an effective contrast to songs performed by Emily Van Evera and Charles Daniels (‘Yow and I and Amyas’, ‘Wher be ye my love?’), where colours and emotions are more richly shaded.
Instrumental numbers, including Hugh Aston’s ‘A Hornepype’ and Cornysh’s ‘Fa la sol’, are no afterthought, but a central part of this unusual disc’s appeal, with Steven Devine’s harpsichord contributions a particular highlight.
This is a recording that speaks beyond the specialist Early Music echo-chamber, offering a vivid and fascinating musical distillation of one of England’s richest cultural eras. Alexandra Coghlan
‘The Spy’s Choirbook’
Alamire; English Cornett & Sackbut Ensemble / David Skinner
The source by itself is a BBC4 documentary just waiting to be made. An illuminated manuscript of superb music, compiled by a composer, copyist and secret agent, Petrus Alamire, who dripped Catholic perfidy into the ear of King Henry VIII before becoming turncoat for the French. Repenting of his treachery, he made a gift of the choirbook in a final, failed attempt to curry favour with the king.
So much for the concept, but its realisation is no less compelling. Singers such as Grace Davidson, Simon Wall, Eamonn Dougan and Greg Skidmore are well known for their work across the English early music scene. They are brought together here under the self-effacing direction of David Skinner, who has always been a scholar-performer in that order. The project to record ‘The Spy’s Choirbook’ evidently means much to him, enough that he named the vocal ensemble (whose recording of Thomas Tomkins was our CD of the Month in February 2008) after Alamire himself.
Comparisons are hardly possible thanks to the rarity of many works presented here – and one hopes that, if nothing else, the album encourages other ensembles to follow Alamire’s lead, put the manuscript on the map and investigate some of its composers who, like Johannes Ghiselin, deserve whole albums in their own right – but some familiar masterpieces of the genre are shown in the light of a new context. The Absalon fili mi attributed to Josquin is a model of modern consort singing: discreet but not decorous, expressive but not exaggerated, full of a spirit of generosity as the singers listen and know when to get out of each other’s way. It marks the end of a superb sequence of motets dedicated to the text Dulces exuviae, among which poor old Anonymous scores at least as highly as Agricola, Josquin, Mouton and indeed Ghiselin in extracting a full measure of dignified pain from Dido’s farewell in The Aeneid. Is Alamire making a poignant connection with Catherine of Aragon? Is a BBC4 producer listening? Peter Quantrill
Marenzio Primo libro di madrigali
La Compagnia del Madrigale
Sometimes a jaded critic feels privileged to review something with the most unabashedly subjective enthusiasm, and thereby finds musical catharsis for the weary soul. I was giddily enthusiastic about Marenzio’s cleverly varied writing for five voices, his imaginatively refined word-painting and the outstanding mastery of harmony evident in his Primo libro di madrigali (printed in 1580 and dedicated to Cardinal Luigi d’Este, the inheritor of his uncle’s famous villa at Tivoli).
This was the debut album by what ostensibly seems like a new ensemble on the block, but key members – soprano Rossana Bertini, tenor Giuseppe Maletto and bass Daniele Carnovich – are all seasoned veterans, having spent more than 20 years singing together in this repertory. All are alumni of Concerto Italiano and La Venexiana, and so are hardly strangers to Marenzio; both of those long-established Italian vocal ensembles have produced essential contributions to the discography already, such as the former’s 2002 Gramophone Award-winning survey of miscellaneous madrigals selected from seven different books. Now working in a new democratic guise without a single artistic director, La Compagnia del Madrigale’s enthralling performances compelled my jaw actually to drop on numerous occasions in response to hearing astonishing chiaroscuro details and expressive sonorities. The bitter-sweet dissonances lamenting lost love (‘Dolorosi martir, fieri tormenti’), the canonic imagery of a blissful dream gradually fading into consciousness (‘Venuta era Madonna al mio languire’), and the antiphonal echoes in the concluding eight-voice dialogue ‘O tu che fra le selve occulti vivi’ are just a few of the exquisite treasures on display.
The other finalists were also tremendous: I was moved by Gallicantus’s ardent piety in Lassus’s Lagrime di San Pietro and admired the customary brilliance of The Tallis Scholars’ stratospheric sopranos in Taverner’s Missa Gloria tibi Trinitas, but I am bewitched by Marenzio’s incantations, and it seems that a few of my colleagues on the jury have also fallen under their spell. David Vickers
‘A New Venetian Coronation 1595’
Gabrieli Consort & Players / Paul McCreesh
While the music of Giovanni Gabrieli and his uncle Andrea is always welcome in the catalogue, there are very few recordings that put it in its full liturgical context in this way – not just with works by Hassler, Bendinelli and Gussago, not just with chants, but the whole atmosphere, with crowd noise, church bells, drums and fanfares.
Paul McCreesh describes the major festivals at St Mark’s as ‘of quite stupendous extravagance’; and – as those who know his recordings have come to expect – he rises to the challenge: 12 sackbuts, four organs, seven natural trumpets and seven cornetts alongside everything else – oh, and just a single bowed string instrument, a viola. But what perhaps gave this the edge over the competition was the sheer musicality and tact in the musical performances.
The centrepiece of the recording is the great 12-voice festal mass of Andrea Gabrieli, who was 10 years dead at the time of the coronation reconstructed by McCreesh but was certainly still being performed on such occasions. This is relatively simple music in some ways, though astonishingly powerful in these beautifully transparent performances.
Alongside these are two polychoral motets and three canzonas from Giovanni Gabrieli’s great 1597 publication. These all benefit from a lightness of touch and rhythm, emphasising their gorgeous colours rather than their magnificence.
Among the tracks here that immediately grab the ear are the organists Jan Waterfield and William Whitehead exchanging thrills in Gussago’s Sonata La leona, the intimate performance of Andrea Gabrieli’s O sacrum convivium with just five voices and Giovanni Gabrieli’s Deus qui beatum Marcum with two voices and the rest played on sackbuts. David Fallows
Victoria Sacred Works
Ensemble Plus Ultra / Michael Noone
This 10-disc set of the sacred music of Victoria was released to coincide with the 400th anniversary of his death in 1611 and, although not a complete survey of his work, is nevertheless the most considerable proportion of his output yet released together on disc.
One of the most enjoyable characteristics of Iberian choral music of this period is the askance perspective Victoria and his contemporaries had on the rules of polyphony that, by Palestrina’s benchmark, were sacred and absolute: it is that variety and unpredictability that keeps this music engaging enough to support 10 discs and 90 pieces by the same composer in one place. But unless a choir embraces the music in that same spirit of insubordination, many of its rhythms, harmonies and audacious dissonances will pass by unnoticed. This is one of the great strengths of the Ensemble Plus Ultra, who embrace the performances of all these pieces with an enthusiastic sense of anything being possible. Ultimately, though, it is just deeply human and emotional music that they perform not only with great tenderness but so simply that one is struck every time – as if for the first time – by its crystalline, uncomplicated beauty. Caroline Gill
Striggio Mass in 40 Parts
I Fagiolini / Robert Hollingworth
Alessandro Striggio was a well-travelled diplomat as well as a composer, performing his opulent polychoral music around Europe. It was during a visit to London that either his 40-part Missa Ecco sì beato giorno or his 40-part motet Ecce beatam lucem motivated Tallis to respond competitively with Spem in alium. I Fagiolini’s massed voices and plethora of Renaissance instrumentalists recreate textures such as those Striggio might have expected and reviewer Fabrice Fitch wrote that these performances ‘revel in the showy splendour of it all’ and illustrate the music’s ‘variegated plumage’.
Byrd Infelix ego
The Cardinall’s Musick / Andrew Carwood
Marathon recording projects aren’t exactly rarities but it’s one thing to record the complete Beethoven piano sonatas (rather easier to market, too), quite another a vast survey of choral music by William Byrd. Because, of course, although Byrd was a superstar of English music in his day, today his music is far less widely known, and less popular even than that of his great contemporary and colleague Thomas Tallis (no chart-topping Spem in alium for Byrd).
Not only that, but early music is still seen by some as an arcane, perhaps academic, domain. These magnificent performances give the lie to that stereotype, in spades. This 13th volume of The Cardinall’s Musick’s Byrd edition is a culmination of the series in various ways, but certainly in terms of a musical experience of vivid imagination, awe-inspiring concentration and, finally, resolution in a series that has been one of the glories of the early music catalogue. A major achievement for all!
‘Song of Songs’
This collection of settings by composers including Palestrina, Guerrero, Gombert, Victoria and Lassus of words from the biblical Song of Songs was a sumptuous and beautifully performed highlight of last year’s choral releases. Gramophone’s Peter Quantrill praised the ‘quiet good taste and stylistically homogeneous approach of Stile Antico’ – the young British vocal ensemble who have assembled and recorded this collection, and who demonstrate freshness of voice and an exquisite and sensitive approach to interpretation throughout the programme.