4 Jan 2023

Tom and Will

For the joint 400th anniversary of Byrd and Weelkes in 2023, The King’s Singers and Fretwork have joined forces for a new album whose programme reflects the contrasts, and occasional parallels, between these two composers, finds Edward Breen

I love the British music scene and am convinced it’s one of our great exports, from Sumer is icumen in to Brit Pop and beyond. So, when I heard about this joint project of Renaissance music from The King's Singers and Fretwork, my attention was piqued immediately. Just consider that title: ‘Tom and Will’. The Will is, unsurprisingly, William Byrd whose 400th anniversary we celebrate in 2023. How about Tom? It turns out it's not him-of-40-part-motet fame, but another one, Thomas Weelkes, known for his exquisite setting of When David Heard and several madrigal evergreens, and it turns out that he also died in 1623 albeit at a younger age.

This project will be special to those of us who, back in the early ‘80s, were introduced to madrigals through The King's Singers' celebrated ‘Madrigal History Tour’ (EMI, 1983) or later through their all-vocal snapshot of the Elizabethan era ‘The Golden Age’ (EMI, 1995). Their clear, fresh sound was hugely skilful but presented with a light touch which helped bring this nuanced music alive. Crucially, they sang madrigals with more obvious humour than others had before them. Like so many early music enthusiasts, I also remember Fretwork's ‘Goe Nightly Cares’ (Virgin 1990), an album of Byrd and Dowland with Michael Chance giving arguably some of his best performances: the thrust of those Galliards, the sinewy sounds of their instruments, the clear soaring falsetto tone! The melancholy was so visceral that even now the mood of that pitch-perfect programme still lingers in my memory. It is therefore with some joy that I anticipate this new collaboration: it's a musical partnership that has been waiting to happen for some time.


For the full text of the article please see Gramophone magazine (January 2023)

4 Dec 2022

Cristo: Magnificat, Marian Antiphons & Missa Salve regina

Cristo: Magnificat, Marian Antiphons & Missa Salve regina
Cupertinos, Luís Toscano
Hyperion CDA68393

It is a deep pleasure to hear this ensemble flourish. Since winning the 2019 Gramophone early music award 2009 it has become increasingly obvious that the singers of Cupertinos and their musicologist-director Luís Toscano have a unique take on the golden age of Portuguese polyphony, and this is only further strengthened by this new release of Marian works by the extraordinarily under-recorded Pedro de Cristo (c.1550-1618). But this disc is much more than a programme of musical treasures, it is also a milestone for Cupertinos: the arrival of a more confident, robust sound and, crucially, new-found rhythmic drive.


One of the strongest points about this ensemble is their balance of inner voices—altos sounding consistently strong in their lower ranges and tenors spinning light, untroubled top notes—it’s hard to tell which is which at times and this strong core to their sound is part of their confident persona – in the 4vv Missa Salve Regina the equal pitch entries on Et iterum venturus est repeatedly hit their mark with the insistence of a darts champion. This core also stabilises the sopranos' pretty flutter and balances the rich basses. I could go on. As if the musicological discoveries were not enough, I’m now quite bewitched by this glorious, Iberian sound world.

To read the full text of this review please visit www.gramophone.co.uk (December 2022)

3 Dec 2022

The Sword & the Lily: 15th-Century Polyphony for Judgement Day

The Sword & the Lily: 15th-Century Polyphony for Judgement Day
Fount & Origin / James Tomlinson
Inventa Records INV1008

I am enormously fond of a good programme concept and this debut album from early music ensemble Fount & Origin offers "a musical meditation on the Franco Flemish painter Rogier van der Weyden’s altarpiece image of The last judgement at the end of time". This multipaneled work in the genre known quaintly as ‘doom’ hung in a hospice to urge patients towards last-minute repentance. As visual art could persuade, so people believed that listening to polyphony, even if you couldn't sing it yourself, also offered a pathway to salvation. Thus, nine 15th century polyphonic works from the 15th century trace themes and characters in the painted panels and form a solid musical arc bookended by Requiem movements.


The highlight for me is Johannes Regis’ (1425-c.1496) bold and confident Missa L’homme armé / Dum sacrum mysterium: Kyrie. The beauty of the voices and subtly of this performance marks this album as a debut of note.

To read the full text of this review please visit www.gramophone.co.uk (December 2022)

5 Nov 2022

Byrd: Psalmes, Songs and Sonnets (1611)

Byrd: Psalmes, Songs and Sonnets (1611)
The Sixteen, Fretwork, Harry Christophers

With 2023 marking the 400th anniversary of William Byrd’s death (c.1540-1623) one might be expecting a surge in recordings of his sacred choral works, and if so, I would advise you strongly not to pass over this largely secular collection. It is an extraordinarily poignant release that will delight, distract and could also, potentially, recalibrate our thinking about the late, great, Byrd. These "Psalmes, Songs and Sonnets" which Byrd intended "...to content every humour: either melancholy, merry, or mixt of both." are his last full publication, and it's somewhat extraordinary to think that although there are several well-known pieces here, the collection hasn’t before been presented in a single release.


I particularly enjoyed the virtuosic three-part music recorded with bright, agile solo voices from The Sixteen emphasising the sparkling, soaring soprano parts and dexterous tenor writing. There is also a world of contrasting emotion between, for instance, In winter cold with text by Geffrey Whitney and Psalm setting Sing ye to our Lord a new song with its nifty triple rhythms. The singers are certainly animated by this music but never overwhelmed: despite several lines spanning two octaves and demanding much agility from each performer it always sounds luminous, and free. No mean feat.

Fretwork performs the glorious 4-part Fantasia with a rich tone and many neatly articulated phrases. They are, however, at their sumptuous best with Katy Hill in O God that guides the cheerful sun and Elisabeth Paul in How vain the toils. Having loved their previous performance of Turn our captivity, O Lord with Clare Wilkinson (“The Silken Tent” Signum SICD826) I was delighted to find that an all-vocal performance here could be just as magical, the use of text on each part not distracting from the delicate, imitative opening at all.

This is a landmark release finally addressing one of the most obvious oversights in Byrd's recorded catalogue. It's an exquisite album of unparalleled beauty that will bear repeated listening long past the anniversary year and Kerry McCarthy's generous essay makes a superb companion and guide.

To read the full text of this review please visit www.gramophone.co.uk (November 2022)

15 Oct 2022

Gramophone Awards 2022: EARLY MUSIC

Josquin Desprez ‘Baisiez Moy’
Thélème / Jean-Christophe Groffe

Every so often a disc comes along which treads a fine line between visionary and baffling and, take it from me, this is an unmissable example. Much of this album demonstrates a cool mastery of conservative performance: several lesser-known chansons are performed from the best editions with a gripping focus on the text. There's a characterful performance of Fama malum, about the spread of evil rumours, and a truly beautiful La Bernardina from lutenists Ivo Haun and Ziv Braha. But my ear was caught by Julien Freymuth, a bright countertenor who spins phrases of fine filigree in Bergerette savoisienne when duetting with the ondes Martenot.

Yes, that's right, an ondes Martenot in Josquin; and elsewhere a Buchler synthesiser and a Fender Rhodes too. Exploring Josquin’s popularity through a Jacques Brelle-meets-Messiaen filter, Thélème present a masterclass in early music arrangement starting from [cue respectful sotto voce] historically informed performance, and quickly blasting beyond its catchment area into another realm altogether – possibly a good way beyond the taste level you might have been expecting – but via an exhilarating trajectory. The aim is to align Josquin with some famous 20th century melancholy and this is achieved with such imaginative conviction that I felt their Mille regretz is best heard walking ruefully through wet Parisian streets at 3am with a Gauloise hanging from my lower lip. Regretz? I've had a few.

Seriously though, Josquin is both venerated in faithful reproduction and honoured by inspiration. The whole album is superb.

1 Oct 2022

Du Bellay: Heureux qui, comme Ulysse

Du Bellay: Heureux qui, comme Ulysse
Doulce Mémoire, Denis Raisin Dadre and Kwal

Settings of Du Bellay's poetry interspersed with recitations by the 'slam' poet Kwal and accompanied by instrumental improvisations, make for an atmospheric and immersive experience. Du Bellay may not have been much set to music but nevertheless the roll call includes Gombert, Lassus and, of course, Arcadelt. The whole programme, varied in emotion and texture, begins with Camile Fritsch's light, fresh soprano in Didier Le Blanc's Qui prestera la parole in which she displays exquisite tenderness as she breaths and sways with the verse. Kwal is also intimate to the point of claustrophobic in his recitations, but I love the mesmeric grain his voice. The pairing of instrumental tracks, too, is clever. Arcadelt's Du temps que j'estois amoureux, dripping with wistfulness is followed by an instrumental performance which although not as warm as the recorders on their previous album [RIC392] nonetheless offers an emotional breathing space.


To read the full text of this review please visit www.gramophone.co.uk (Awards 2022)

1 Sept 2022

Mouton: Missa Faulte d'argent & Motets

Mouton: Missa Faulte d'argent & Motets
The Brabant Ensemble, Stephen Rice
Hyperion CDA68385

Writing nearly 70 years ago Gustave Reese described Jean Mouton (?1459 -1522) as 'the most gifted of Josquin's emulators' and while that is in many senses true, this new disc from director and musicologist Stephen Rice is still a bit of a revelation. Mouton, like so many composers too easily categorised as Josquinian aftershocks, comes to life in the hands of The Brabant Ensemble and the results are eye opening.


The Missa Faulte d'argent quotes a chanson both tender and sonorous and also shows a preference for fuller textures. The singing is extremely sure-footed, and I like the way Mouton's careful setting of key moments are measured-out e.g. the touching duet on Domine Fili unigenite into the full chords on Qui tollis peccata mundi. There is a lot of variety in this mass and indeed the selection throughout this disc. From the late medieval feel of Gaude virgo Katherina to the imitative exuberance of Illuminare, illuminare, Jerusalem, Mouton delivers on many levels and The Brabant Ensemble perform his works with verve and brilliance.

To read the full text of this review please visit www.gramophone.co.uk (September 2022)