Those who may have been discouraged by yesterday’s account of the recent Sit Fast recording of early instrumental music by Henry Purcell may take comfort in a far more satisfying account of an earlier century. The Marian Consort (named for the Blessed Virgin Mary) has achieved an international reputation with their performances of a cappella music focused on the period between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries. Their reputation also extends into the contemporary repertoire, and their programs often provide informed juxtapositions of historical and recent music.
Their reputation has been enhanced through the release of recordings made by Edinburgh-based Delphian Records. The most recent of these came out at the end of last October and is entitled LOQUEBANTUR: Music from the Baldwin Partbooks. The Baldwin Partbooks are held at Christ Church in Oxford, and they are the personal collection of English and Continental vocal polyphony and consort music compiled by John Baldwin. Baldwin was a lay clerk at St. George’s Chapel in Windsor in 1575 and became a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal in 1598. This recording reflects the ongoing interest of The Marian Consort and Director Rory McCleery in such partbooks, having previously performed music from a similar collection compiled by Robert Dow. Thus, most of the vocal performances on this recording are based on performing editions that McCleery himself prepared.
As was the case with the Dow collection, the instrumental side of the Baldwin Partbooks was represented on this recording by the Rose Consort of Viols. In this case most of the performing editions were prepared by John Bryan, who plays tenor viol in this group. Note that these two groups perform separately, the instrumental selections providing an “overture” and “interludes” between the vocal performances. This makes for a satisfying balance of the two genres that Baldwin had collected in his partbooks.
As is often the case with such recordings, those who are not dedicated scholars of early music are likely to find only a few of the composers’ names familiar. McCleery has included several of the “usual suspects” in the compositions he selected for this recording. Thus, one will find Thomas Tallis, William Byrd, John Taverner, and, from the Continent, Orlande de Lassus on this recording, as well as, appropriately enough, one piece for three viols by Baldwin himself. (I also have to confess a personal bias for McCleery taking Grove Music Online as the “standard” for Lassus’ name, as I try to do in my own writing as consistently as possible!)
The title of the album comes from the first Tallis selection, “Loquebantur variis linguis apostoli” (the apostles were speaking in divers languages), a Respond for the First Vespers on the Feast of Pentecost. All the texts sung by The Marian Consort are sacred. The astute listener will also notice that this is the music reproduced on the cover (shown above) of the album (more specifically, one of the six parts).
It is also worth recognizing McCleery’s observation in the accompanying booklet that only five of the six partbooks have survived. Fortunately, the missing volume happens to be the Tenor, which is the easiest to reconstruct from other sources. However, this explains why it was important that McCleery provide details about the performing editions used by The Marian Consort.
Fortunately, musicianship never takes a back seat to scholarship. There is consistently reliable clarity in both vocal and instrumental performances. The Marian Consort deserves special attention for their keen command of intonation, without which some of the more dramatic elements of the texts being sung might have been diminished. These are performances through which the contemporary listener may appreciate the impact of dissonance, even when it involves intervals that would be much more familiar in later music. The result is thus an account of sixteenth-century music that is as informative as it is engaging.