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“Vigilate! English polyphony in dangerous times” = Choral music of WHITE, TALLIS, BYRD, PHILIPS, MORLEY & TOMKINS – Monteverdi Choir/Gardiner – Soli Deo Gloria

“Vigilate! English polyphony in dangerous times” =  PHILIPS: Ecce vicit Leo; WHITE: Christe qui lux es dies; Lamentations (for 6 voices); TALLIS: Suscipe quaeso; O nata lux de lumine; BYRD: Laudibus in sanctis; Civitas sancti tui; Turn Our Captivity, O Lord; Nunc dimittis; Vigilate; Justorum animae; MORLEY: Nolo mortem peccatoris; TOMKINS: Almighty God, the fountain of all wisdom – Monteverdi Choir/ John Eliot Gardiner – Soli Deo Gloria SDG 720, 77:33 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:

I never thought that I would think of the Monteverdi Choir as “old style” considering their origins and numerous accomplishments over now 50 years, but in this interesting compilation they sound distinctly “aged” in terms of style and tonal quality. This isn’t a bad thing, as often choirs today are becoming as amalgamated in sound as orchestras have become over the last thirty years. The Monteverdi still sings with a degree of passion that is sometimes missing in action among the more modern, homogenized ensembles that pass as specialists in the ancient repertory these days. SDG Recordings aims for a pleasant, analog-like sound that doesn’t attempt digital splendor but instead relies on as accurate and realistic a portrayal of the sound as possible within fairly traditional recorded means. There is not as much spread in the sound as I have heard on other similar programs, though there is warmth aplenty.

The program itself relies on the collection of composers who one way or another had to deal with the ever-shifting religious paradigm that took place over a hundred year period in England. Many of them—at least five of the six here—could be called recusants, those who secretly, or at least, carefully, practiced their Roman Catholic faith in the midst of sometimes hostile officialdom which was not willing to grant overt sympathies toward the “former” religion. Tallis and Byrd are the greatest, of course; and in recognition of this, even Elizabeth herself was of the mind to grant them exclusive publishing rights in the country, though history shows she wasn’t always happy with their activities. Elizabeth was a lover of the arts however, and she respected talent. These two were able to bend enough to make things work for them.

Robert White was only a generation removed (younger) than Tallis, but went his own way, though he was indebted to Tallis. He graduated only two years after the Book of Common Prayer was introduced, so found himself straddling fences his whole life. Tomkins, Morley, and Philips were all students of Byrd and never stopped praising him, though only the former could be considered a lifelong Anglican, even if he had fond feelings for the recusants and their dilemmas.

Most of this music has a very personal meaning to director John Eliot Gardiner, who states that the pairing-down process was quite painful. I think we can consider his and the choir’s effort a success.

—Steven Ritter

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