Notes and Editorial Reviews
Voces Cantabiles have enthusiastically and carefully reached into a tightly tied sack and pulled out some jewels.
Next to nothing is known about Robert Parsons. He was born around 1530. That makes him almost the same generation as Byrd, who succeeded Parsons at the Chapel Royal to which the latter was appointed in 1563. He died by drowning in the River Trent in 1572. It has been suggested that Parsons’ unusual death may have been responsible for fellow musicians and associates turning their backs on his music immediately after the traumatic event; and that this neglect somehow snowballed.
We know that not all of Parson’s music has survived. He presumably wrote a much larger corpus of instrumental music
while at the Chapel Royal than has survived. Indeed there are only two current CDs containing Parsons’ music; each shares performances of his Ave Maria (included here too) with other anthologies. So this release with almost 70 minutes of touching, moving and unself-consciously beautiful music performed by the accomplished ensemble, Voces Cantabiles, is particularly welcome. All the more so since Parsons broke new compositional ground – and not just because he lived at a time of significant change in musical thinking and practice.
His choral writing displays some of the breadth of Taverner and Tallis, say, and much of their command and sense of direction with the way in which words meet music. The texts - not included in the Naxos booklet - here are both Latin and English. The style is both driven and mildly decorative … as at the end of the Creed (tr.7) where a nevertheless restrained melisma stands out for what it adds to an otherwise driven progression of musical ideas.
This – rightly – suggests that Parsons lacks the more personally-expressed depth of his more illustrious contemporaries. Yet his music has real beauty and is pleasantly compelling. His lines are clear, clean and inspiring; his textures never dense or obscure. This reflects the new emphasis on plainness and purely English liturgical writing as required by the publication in 1549 of Cranmer’s ‘Book of Common Prayer’. For all that icon of the English Reformation’s implied simplicity of purpose and tenor, Parsons’ corresponding music lacks nothing in style or detail. It contains some almost experimental harmonies, which will delight as one comes to know the other aspects of his choral writing.
It should be noted that the ‘First Great Service’, parts of which occupy about half this well-recorded CD, was one of the first settings of the liturgy to comply with the new and revolutionary requirements for composition in English. It’s music for two five to eight-part antiphonal choirs. In that the ‘First Great Service’ was also one of the first such services to be unified throughout its movements, a recording which respects that continuity would be welcome one day: this does not – movements from the ‘Responds for the Dead’ are interspersed. These are striking pieces from the ‘Burial Service’. The intention of this CD’s producers has been to honour Parsons in ways that probably didn’t happen in the sixteenth century. Very fitting.
Parsons’ Magnificat is his largest extant composition. It’s scored for six-voice choir and alternates plainsong and polyphony in new and radical ways; and in ways that differ movement from movement yet at the same time acknowledge the by then century old musical format with great skill. This is a bit of a gem that repays very careful study.
If there were a criticism of the way Barnaby Smith and Voces Cantabiles perform this highly effective, melodious and gracious music, it would be that they do not always take the time to savour some of the more glowing passages. Though they do bring out the music’s warmth – listen to the end of the Nunc dimittis, and for that matter of the Ave Maria. But greater revelation of the contrasts which Parsons achieved between light and darkness, joy and pain would have made the interpretation more effective still.
This CD achieves much. It draws attention to an unfairly neglected English composer of what is perhaps the tradition’s richest period. It suggests that Robert Parsons can hold his own with all but the greatest practitioners of the time. It conveys a clear and striking sense of his skills, sensitivity both to traditions and to innovations from and by the clergy at the watershed of the Reformation. It implicitly highlights the innovative writing in which Parsons appeared strikingly comfortable. It presents the variety of techniques of which Parsons was capable - and on which he thrived. And it offers us a serving of some truly lovely, delicate and yet potent choral singing.
A very welcome selection of choral polyphony from the start of the Reformation. Voces Cantabiles have enthusiastically and carefully reached into a tightly tied sack and pulled out some jewels - without a whiff of mustiness; and with the promise of greater sparkle to come.
Mark Sealey, MusicWeb International
Works on This Recording
Ave Maria by Robert Parsons
Written: 1560s; England
Magnificat by Robert Parsons
Written: 16th Century; England
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