WEELKES English Anthems and Instrumental Music • David Skinner, dir; Ch of Sidney Sussex College Cambridge; Fretwork • OBSIDIAN CD 708 (63:22 Text and Translation)
While there are in print several dozen anthology CDs of Tudor sacred choral music that contain one or more pieces by Thomas Weelkes (1576–1623), until now there have been to my knowledge only seven discs devoted exclusively or substantially to that composer’s art. Four were previously reviewed in these pages by J. F.Read more Weber:
Steven Darlington / Christ Church Cathedral Choir, on Nimbus, out of print (12:3);
David Hill / Winchester Cathedral Choir, originally on Hyperion (16:3), reissued on Helios (31:5);
Jeremy Summerly / Oxford Camerata, on Naxos (20:2);
Richard Marlow / Choir of Trinity College Cambridge, on Conifer (17:2). This disc is evenly divided between works of Weelkes and those of his longer-lived contemporary Thomas Tompkins (1572–1656).
Releases not mentioned by Weber are:
Paul Brough / Choir of the Abbey School, Tewkesbury, on Meridian, released 1990;
Benjamin Nicholas / Tewkesbury Abbey Schola Cantorum on Delphian, released 2009;
Anthony Rooley / Consort of Musicke / Emma Kirkby, on ASV, released 1999.
In comparing the first three of these, Weber ranked his order of preference as Summerly–Darlington–Hill, a judgment with which I concur completely. The Summerly has a special degree of transparency and fluidity that Darlington almost but does not quite match, and which the larger ensemble under Hill lacks. Of the others, I would place Marlow slightly behind Darlington but ahead of Hill, and rate Brough dead last as adequate but not competitive. Rooley is sui generis in that the works are sung one voice to a part rather than by a choir, an approach I do not find suitable for sacred choral anthems. Nicholas features top-notch singing, but in a very reverberant cathedral acoustic that may or may not be to the taste of all listeners.
Admittedly, these discs are not directly comparable in all aspects. Each has at least one selection that the others do not, and this new entry from Obsidian does not change that equation. Summerly uses a mixed male-female choir, whereas all the other alternatives employ a men-and-boys choir; the Darlington CD is primarily devoted to two larger-scale works (the Ninth Service and the Evening Service for Five Voices), and the ASV disc is primarily a collection of madrigals, whereas the other discs contain selections of shorter, independent sacred choral anthems.
So, where does this disc, titled Give the King a Long Life, rank against the competition? Extremely highly; in fact, I would place it at the very top, alongside Summerly as the Weelkes album of choice. The Sidney Sussex College Choir under veteran early-music expert David Skinner has all of the gracefulness and agility of the Oxford Camerata, but also some of the greater weight of the Winchester and Tewkesbury forces (on the Delphian CD) without any of their limitations. Its members sing with exemplary ensemble and intonation, beauty of tone, clarity of diction, and interpretive expressiveness. The skillfully chosen mix of selections includes 14 anthems, two organ voluntaries, and three pavanes plus one fantasy for viols; the latter are performed by the estimable viol consort Fretwork, which also accompanies some of the anthems. The recorded acoustic is marvelously spacious without ever turning the slightest bit murky. This outstanding release is short-listed for my 2012 Want List, and urgently recommended to all lovers of Tudor choral music.
A supplementary word needs to be said about the packaging of this disc. Rather than being housed in either a standard plastic CD case or a cardboard digipak, the CD and slender booklet (which does include all texts, plus notes) are each placed in slip-in pockets on either side of a thin outer cardboard cover, folded in half. A discreet symbol on the cover describes the case as “Bend-it Green.” I suspect that it is being promoted as a new, more ecologically sound form of packaging. If so it will certainly save on shelf space, but afford far less protection to the contents.