Highly esteemed by contemporaries as 'one of our best musicians', Orlando Gibbons remains sadly overshadowed by some of his better known compatriots, especially Byrd. The best of his output, however, is richly rewarding, and this recording presents a fine selection of his liturgical music (some of it in editions prepared especially for this release by Dr David Skinner [now working at Cambridge]). In general, Magdalen College Choir sings with accurate intonation and precise ensemble, although for my money, they still lack the maturity, technical assurance and refinement of groups such as the Tallis Scholars and the Sixteen (which use female sopranos in place of the original trebles). For this programme, Magdalen Choir are joined by several renowned soloists, as well as the viol consort Fretwork.
Musicologically speaking, it is laudable that the 'contratenor' solos in the verse anthems are sung by a high tenor (rather than a countertenor), particularly since they are so ably interpreted by Rogers Covey-Crump and Steven Harrold. On the other hand, the presence of a viol consort here is not very convincing. Although viols may have been used in a domestic setting, such performances would have involved a mere handful of singers (probably one-per-part), and certainly NOT a full chapel choir (with a sizeable 13 voices on the top part in Magdalen's case!). On the other hand, some verse anthem texts clearly suggest liturgical rather than domestic performance (like 'This is the record of John' [track 1], written, according to the manuscript incipit, 'for St John Baptists day'), which is highly significant when one considers that evidence supporting the presence of viols in a liturgical context is practically non-existent. Here, the instrumental interludes of such pieces were almost certainly played on an organ, or perhaps occasionally by cornetts and sackbuts (as at the funeral of Prince Henry in 1612, where 'the Gentlemen of the King's [= St. James'] Chapel, with the Children thereof, sung divers excellent Anthems, together with the Organs, and other wind Instruments'). Yet the fact that viols are not just used in the verse anthems on this recording - curiously, they also appear in the Second Service (tracks 4-5 and 9-10) - merely exaggerates the problem, and renders somewhat desperate the attempted justification for their presence in the liner notes (i.e. lack of evidence could suggest that viols were 'commonplace', p.6 - an argument which presumably supports any contemporary instrument taking part, be it opharion, virginals or rackett...!). On a different note entirely, is there any reason why only one verse of each the two hymns (tracks 6 and 8) is sung...?
Overall, in spite of the positive aspects which could be highlighted (notably Skinner's new editions and the varied selection of Gibbon's music), unfortunately, the final result sounds rather like a strange continuation of Deller's/Wenzinger's legacy. In my view, for what it's worth, Gibbons's music has been better served by two other recordings -
1. The Oxford Camerata's release entitled Gibbons: Choral and Organ Music, which has the added advantage of being available at budget price (even if they do sing 'Great King of Gods' to its 19th century text!)
2. Red Byrd's Elizabethan Christmas Anthems, which presents verse anthems by various composers (including Gibbons) within a distinctly 'domestic' style, thereby using viols in a considerably more convincing sound world.