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Classical - Released January 6, 2011 | Obsidian

Booklet Distinctions Gramophone Editor's Choice
The 1575 publication Cantiones Sacrae was something of a landmark of English music: a major printed-music collection of the sort that had been appearing on the Continent for much of the 16th century. Thomas Tallis and William Byrd were granted a printing monopoly by Queen Elizabeth I and each contributed 17 works to the collection, perhaps because, as ensemble leader David Skinner argues in his booklet notes (in English only), the 17th anniversary of the queen's accession occurred in 1575. That's typical of the level of detail with which the music is presented here. The transposition scheme is laid out in a table, and much is made of the fact that this is the first recording of the whole group of pieces, by the same group of singers and in the order the composers "intended." That's of only minor relevance; the music was never meant for complete performance of this kind. However, when the rubber meets the road these are strong performances by the small mixed-gender group Alamire, which deploys two voices per part. These are Latin motets, several of them quite complex and imposing (try the three-section Tribue Domine of Byrd on disc 2); those by the aged Tallis are intense explorations of an older style with plenty of dissonances that Skinner retains here (some performances edit them out). Some of these works will be familiar to devoted choristers, and these may wish to make the leap to the entire set as a reference; the sound, from the Fitzalan Chapel at Arundel Castle in Sussex, is a major plus. © TiVo
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Classical - Released April 3, 2012 | Obsidian

Booklet Distinctions 5 de Diapason
British composer Thomas Weelkes, who suffered the ignominy of being dismissed from his church job after his employers complained that he would "very often come ... either from the tavern or the alehouse into the choir," is best known for madrigals like Sing wee at pleasure. But he composed music in most of the genres of his time, and this fine release gives a sample of his anthems and his neglected instrumental music. Conductor David Skinner moves over from his small vocal-instrumental group Alamire to lead the Choir of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, and the instrumental ensemble Fretwork. The choir, with adult (but young) female sopranos and altos, is not well known, but the sounds Skinner gets out of them are gorgeous. He likes to set shimmering vibrato lines from the comparatively small tenor section against clean lines from the women, and the sheer musicality of the result is often striking. Sample the subtle handling of the unexpected plagal cadence at the end of the anthem When David heard (track 7) for a taste. The instrumental pieces are divided between keyboard works and small ensemble pavans (and a few works in other genres), and Skinner and Fretwork make these cohere with the choral pieces even though they don't come from the same kind of setting. Highly recommended for those trying to broaden their English Renaissance collections beyond the ubiquitous madrigals. © TiVo
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Classical - Released January 1, 2007 | Obsidian

Josquin's music, much of which is both difficult and remote in time and place, often attracts performers who try to clarify a certain aspect of it. Yet some of his music -- the chanson Mille regretz (A thousand regrets), for example -- are not difficult at all and speak a basic emotional language clearly across the centuries. This was Josquin's genius: in the words of theorist Glareanus, quoted in the booklet here, "there was nothing in this field that he could not do." The booklet essay by conductor and Cambridge University professor David Skinner entertainingly introduces Josquin and the problems surrounding his oeuvre for general listeners. There are some terrific anecdotes gleaned from recent scholarship. Luther's famous remark that "Josquin is the master of the notes . . . while other composer must do as the notes dictate" is here, but even better is a story touching on Josquin's popularity in his own time, and especially after his death: one nobleman commented that now that Josquin was dead, he was putting out even more works than he had when he was alive. Skinner and his all-adult octet Alamire set out not to put Josquin into deep context, but to convey his breadth; secondarily, they perform mostly early pieces and try to examine the formation of his style. The Missa D'ung aultre amer, based on a chanson by Ockeghem, is not necessarily the centerpiece of the program but an example of Josquin's early mass style, and it works well for the listener trying to get a grip on the masses: its contrapuntal artifice, while ingenious, is not buried in this music and is fully audible in the measured, clear performances by Alamire. The work also serves to illustrate Josquin's desire to outdo himself by returning to material he had previously treated; two other works take up the D'ung aultre amer music in different ways. After the mass come motets performed by Alamire, along with chansons sung by Clare Wilkinson to the accompaniment of Andrew Lawrence-King's Renaissance harp, and pieces (either vocal or instrumental originally) played by Lawrence-King alone. Needless to say, this is not a program that would have been heard in an Italian noble establishment in Josquin's time. The lurch from the massive motet Planxit autem David to the little harp rendition of the chanson Cela sans plus is something like what you would experience if a pianist took the stage after a Beethoven symphony to perform Rage over a Lost Penny. Nevertheless, the performances are well suited to the music; Wilkinson's limpid readings of the chansons performed vocally are lovely (one wishes there were a few more of these); it's hard to think of another Josquin disc that captures his breadth in quite this way. Recommended as a building block for a library of Josquin's music. © TiVo
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Classical - Released May 31, 2019 | Inventa Records

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Hieronymus Praetorius is unrelated to composer Michael Praetorius and is much less well known than his namesake. His neglect is probably due to a comparative dearth of surviving music, but this release by the vocal group Alamire under David Skinner and joined by His Majesty's Sagbutts and Cornetts, suggests that closer attention is warranted. In these motets, at least, Hieronymus was a North German counterpart to Schütz, an early adopter of the Venetian polychoral style. Like Schütz, he put his own twists on it, although these pieces do not have the deep gravity of Schütz's. Instead, he deployed the voices of his multiple choirs in various ways, offering clear part-writing for as many as 16 or 20 voice lines. For the maximal effect, sample the Decantabat populus a20, which has a truly kaleidoscopic effect as blocks separate and recombine. The diverse forces here are mostly veteran musicians and cohere beautifully as an ensemble. Are two CDs of music, not intended to be performed at a stretch, a lot for average listeners? Maybe, but even for them, this is a useful reference recording, and fans of the early Baroque will find much to admire. © TiVo
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Classical - Released January 1, 2007 | Obsidian

Thomas Tomkins is a Renaissance-era English composer best known for his keyboard works such as Pavan for These Distracted Times and choral music such as The Great Service and his Funeral Sentences. Tomkins lived in distracted times indeed; in 1649, the head of his beloved monarch, Charles I, came down upon a pile of straw with a headsman's single stroke, and Tomkins' mournful Pavan has forever associated his music with the ill-fated regent. The not numerous single discs devoted to Tomkins' music often feature one of the many portraits of Charles I on the cover, but English label Obsidian -- not to be confused with the Australian black metal label of the same name -- breaks precedent with its Thomas Tomkins: These Distracted Times in using a picture of Oliver Cromwell -- the bad guy in Tomkins' view -- on its front. This disc features the vocal group Alamire -- the main, in-house artist at Obsidian -- serving as soloists in the vocal works and backed by the Choir of Sidney Sussex, Cambridge, as led by David Skinner. To provide passages of purely instrumental music between vocal pieces, the eminent viol consort Fretwork pitches in some pavans and the famous one is played by organist Jamal Sutton. As a single-disc survey of Tomkins' music, this is very good, although the very sobriety of the album as a whole works against it at times; even pieces that are "happy" sound sad. Alamire's bass Robert MacDonald beautifully delivers the low voice incipits at the beginnings of certain anthems, but the Choir of Sidney Sussex -- though again, very good -- is an ordinary church choir; it lacks the pure tone and transcendence of the best early music vocal groups. Admittedly, the choir's slightly unfocused tone is probably more stylistically appropriate medium for Tomkins music anyway, and those attuned to more common forms of choral singing will find this aspect no barrier. However, the unleavened feeling of grief that pervades the whole album makes it a bit of a tough go, and it is better taken in smaller doses. That said, Thomas Tomkins: These Distracted Times is an extremely promising release from the new company; in terms of production and packaging, it has just about everything right, and this definitely gives listeners devoted to early music something to look forward to in terms of its productions. © TiVo
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Classical - Released September 4, 2012 | Obsidian

Booklet
The Trinity Carol Roll, dating from the 15th century, the earliest extant manuscript of English polyphonic carols, includes the text and music of 13 carols. The British vocal consort Alamire, led by its founder David Skinner, sings all the pieces as well as five other carols on this fine album on the ensemble's own label, Obsidian. Andrew Lawrence-King playing gothic harp and psaltery, Michaël Grébil playing plectrum lute, and Pamela Thorby playing recorder and gemshorn deftly accompany the singers. These are not the carols most people would gather around the piano to sing at the holidays, and not all are even carols with Christmas themes. It's immediately evident from the melodies and harmonies that this is ancient music; it's not hard to believe that it's over half a millennium old. One of the most famous pieces from the Trinity Carol Roll is the title track, Deo gracias Anglia!, also known as the Agincourt Carol, written to celebrate Henry V's victory over the French in 1415, and it receives a rowdy, exhilarating performance. Others carols, such as There is no rose of swych vertu and Nova, nova, are also likely to be familiar to fans of music of this period, but some of the pieces are rarities. The distant roots of the music are evident throughout and some tracks have a bracing rawness, but some, like Lullay, lullay, are gently serene. The performers sing and play with great zest and all of the performances are top-notch. The voices are clean, pure, and strong, and the delivery is unmannered. The colorful accompaniment is varied and spirited. Obsidian's sound is clear and clean with a warm, close presence. Overall it's recorded at a louder level than most classical CDs, which may require some volume adjustment. © TiVo
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Classical - Released January 1, 2007 | Obsidian

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Classical - Released January 1, 2006 | The Gift of Music

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Classical - Released March 6, 2012 | The Gift of Music

Booklet
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Classical - Released January 1, 2008 | The Gift of Music

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Classical - Released January 1, 2009 | Obsidian

It's well known that King Henry VIII was a composer, but he's generally represented by one or two pieces on collections of English Renaissance music rather than being treated as the central figure in a flourishing artistic culture. Exactly how much music he wrote is a matter of dispute, but this disc by the English vocal group Alamire and wind consort QuintEssential, with harpist Andrew Lawrence-King, presents a generous sampling of nine vocal and instrumental pieces (although Pastime with Good Company, recorded by musicians as recent as Jethro Tull, is omitted), along with music written for Henry by other composers. These are perhaps the most interesting and unusual, especially the group of six Motets from a Royal Choirbook (tracks 7-12). Four of these are the product of a composer known only as Sampson, and, more curiously still, thought to be German. Check out the canonic Salve radix (track 7), whose lovely score is reproduced on the back of the booklet; the spiral shape of the score is replicated in the piece's harmonic motion. The setting, likewise by the elusive Sampson, of the Quam pulcra es text from the Song of Songs, is termed by director and annotator David Skinner "with its erotic ovetones . . . an odd inclusion in this royal gift" (the choirbook was a gift to Henry and Catherine of Aragon), although one can think of plenty of reasons Henry and his outsized personality might have inspired such a decision. The works by Henry himself might be described as competent but simple; the program as a whole defines a nice contrast between imposing sacred pieces and a secular sphere in which the king could musically hold his own. The performances of the 12-voice mixed-gender adult choir Alamire (named for the compiler of the motet book) are among the best available in this repertory; the group conveys the quality of free fantasy, counterbalanced by complex abstraction, in the music and avoids the ponderousness that often turns large works like Fayrfax's concluding Lauda vivi alpha et o into undifferentiated blobs. All in all, a fine addition to English Renaissance collections. © TiVo
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Classical - Released January 4, 2011 | The Gift of Music

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Classical - Released January 25, 2010 | Obsidian

Ludwig Senfl was a major figure among musicians in the German renaissance; he was gainfully employed for many years as a court composer for Emperor Maximilian I and collaborated with Heinrich Isaac in compiling the massive Choralis Constantinus. After casting off his priestly frock to marry, Senfl was actively involved in editing manuscript music and working as a freelance composer. His contribution was valued by both the established Latin and emergent Reformation church, and large numbers of his works were preserved; Senfl's music is of such uniformly high quality that sometimes it can be hard to pinpoint what stands out. The Choir of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, led by David Skinner and joined by period brass group QuintEssential and harpist Andrew Lawrence-King, do a splendid job of assembling a strong program of Senfl in Obsidian's Ludwig Senfl: Missa Paschalis, Motetten & Lieder. The Missa Paschalis is not presented as a unit, but presented in two halves with a scattering of Senfl's songs, and one instrumental piece, in between. This must've been devised in order to avoid monotony and to spread the program out more evenly among the various kinds of pieces under consideration, but it probably would have been preferable to present the mass as a whole. Nevertheless, one can organize one's player to deliver it that way, and it is an attractive and appropriately devotional performance of the Missa Paschalis, with the voices blending very well with the period horns. One might have liked a bit more of the soprano voices, but the overall balance is fine. Senfl's songs, featuring King's harp and two vocal soloists, are much quieter than the choral music and one may want to jockey the volume a bit. © TiVo
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Classical - Released January 1, 2006 | The Gift of Music

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Classical - Released March 29, 2011 | The Gift of Music

Booklet
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Classical - Released January 1, 2004 | The Gift of Music