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Fanfare Magazine: 39:5 (05-06/2016) 
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Reviewer: Barry Brenesal


It was less than half a year ago that I received the first in a projected series of releases drawn from the Baldwin partbooks, featuring Owen Rees and Contrapunctus (Signum 408; Fanfare 39:1). Now we have Rory McCleery and company on a single release, drawn from the same original material. (McCleery is also one of the two altos on Rees’s recording.) Duplication is scarce, however, and the approaches distinct enough from two respected sources as to warrant equal attention.

The Baldwin partbooks began life in the late 1570s. John Baldwin, a tenor lay clerk at St. George’s Chapel, Windsor (he’s described in the period records as “a singing man”) was engaged by an unknown source to copy out over 170 pieces that had dropped out of the active, permitted liturgical repertoire around 1575 to 1581. His choices were extremely varied: a Mass, motets, sizable Marian antiphons, lamentations, and even a short series of untexted consort music towards the end of the collection (including a few works, sacred and secular, by Baldwin himself). These were arranged according to the custom of the day as partbooks, meaning one part to a book, easing the cost in time and effort in manuscript replication. There were six such books to the Baldwin collection, with a strong, multi-generational focus on both Byrd (41 pieces) and Sheppard (31). Others figure into the collection, too, including a few rarely seen names, such as a pupil of Tallis, Elway Bevin, and the Flemish composer William Daman. Baldwin’s extremely clear and precise hand is especially appreciated, given that 60 of the selections are currently unica, not to be found anywhere else.

The worm at the heart of this rose is that at some point in the past, the tenor book went missing. While a small amount of reconstruction can be done using referenced plainchant when this is suitable, many selections simply aren’t written that way. But as with the Peterhouse partbooks, there have been recent, scholarly attempts to rebuild the works as closely as can be conceived to the originals. No one doubts that the reconstructions aren’t the originals, but given a sufficiently informed awareness of a Tudor composer’s musical style—meaning the choices he tends to make in part-writing under a specific set of musical circumstances at any given moment, and within the limitations permitted by the other known voices, and the music’s rhythmic and harmonic movement—some fine results have been achieved. There’s no doubting that without these reconstructions, we would miss a great deal of magnificent music.

Each choral group consists of more than one voice to a part. Contrapunctus has four sopranos, two altos, tenors, and basses; the Marian Consort has two sopranos, tenors, and countertenors (by which I assume alto is meant, since McCleery is one of them), and one baritone and bass. The difference isn’t as clear as one might think. Rees doesn’t list performers on any given piece, as McCleery does, but he clearly is sparing in use with the full complement of his singers.

Some clear differences exist in program planning between this disc and that of Rees. The obvious one is that while both Rees and McCleery furnish 10 vocal works, Rees has chosen to include six viol consort works as well. They serve to vary the vocal textures for easier, lengthy listening—or, according to your point of view, unnecessarily break up the considerable variety of vocal textures already present among the selections. Overall, McCleery includes a number of shorter works, while Rees includes one that’s much longer than anything else on both discs: John Sheppard’s splendid if frequently recorded Media vita, at over 23 minutes. There is a small difference in pacing on the one work each ensemble sings, but by no means sufficient upon which to build a theory, praise God who doeth all things well. Rees is ever so slightly slower in Gerarde’s Sive vigilem and begins rather more subdued, but both performances are fine demonstrations of expressive phrasing and balance among the parts.

The significantly differing tempos in another work on both albums, Taverner’s Quemadmodum, can be dismissed as a matter of texture. Contrapunctus sings it for Rees, but the Rose Consort of Viols plays it on McCleery’s release. The consort version is the original, at least as far as we know, since it exists in a variety of sources as a six-voiced work with only the incipit. (H. B. Collins suggested in 1925 that the first two verses of Psalm 42 fit closely enough to reassign it as a vocal work, for the textures appeared vocal. So they are, but that applies to many non-vocal works for viol consort, as well; and to confuse matters, Thomas Morley wrote in his A Plaine and Easie Introduction to Practical Musicke of 1597 that many motets were played “leaving out the ditty and singing only the bare note, as it were a music made only for instruments.” Likely there’s no single right answer here.) Without having to perform words intelligibly, a viable version can certainly be performed in 4:13 with viols without feeling rushed. Fretwork’s own version comes in at 4:21, now on Helios 55053.

Little on this album is difficult to find elsewhere, though you’d have to assemble the complete program from a fairly broad selection of recordings, including a few instrumental albums, such as Fretwork’s In Nomine (Amon Ra 29)—and even then, you might miss the odd one-off, such as Baldwin’s wildly mercurial Coockow as I me walked for consort. The voices are in any case very fine without exception, whether as part of a complex textural weave, in smaller groupings, or in solo performance. Sheppard’s Ave maris stella can function here as a showpiece for all three. The Rose Consort evinces a firm tone and rhythmic precision. Engineering is close for both ensembles, with plenty of character, and none of the seemingly endless decay rate that afflicts so many chapel-based recordings when miked for atmosphere at too great a distance.

If I had to choose between these two Baldwin partbook albums, I’d still go with Rees, if only because his promises to be the first of a series. However, these recordings are equally attractive in their content and performances, with the involvement of the Rose Consort adding a distinctive touch under McCleery. Save up your shillings, and consider them both for purchase.

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