Barnaby Smith

Robert Parsons: First Great Service; Responds for the Dead

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Robert Parsons is something of a forgotten man of English Renaissance music, and annotator and conductor Barnaby Smith discusses in the booklet a startling reason why: Parsons fell into the River Trent and drowned in 1572, and there was "upset and suspicion surrounding his death" -- apparently to the point where the choristers of the Chapel Royal uneasily began to avoid his music. If anyone is inspired to write a mystery novel yet, know that you'll have an additional selling point to use when your agent tries to get your book turned into a movie: Parsons' music is an attractively varied lot that reflects its time and would offer all kinds of ideas to an enterprising director. Parsons lived from around 1530 to 1572, and his career thus coincided with the musical beginnings of the Reformation in England. The program is structured as an imagined musical requiem for Parsons that he never had in his own time -- not an actual service for the dead but a collection of Parsons' works that both represents his output and contains some funeral music -- a group of Latin responds (responsories) for the dead. Both Latin- and English-language pieces are included, and the differences between them contribute part of the interest of the program. The opening Magnificat, in Latin, is a remarkably varied piece of High Renaissance polyphony in terms of texture -- so much so that Parsons almost seems to ignore the Renaissance homogeneous sound idea. Something always seems to be happening in this piece: voice pairs and trios and quartets trade off, with a different grouping each time, and canonic passages provide a sharp contrast with sections that have the quality of free fantasy. The English-language First Great Service is soberer in comparison, but doesn't have the spare quality of Tallis' Anglican anthems -- one senses that Parsons was trying to find a middle ground between the big polyphonic style and the Protestant spirit. The young mixed-gender singers of Smith's Voces Cantabiles deliver a fresh, accurate take on the classic British cathedral sound, and really the only disagreeable experiences here result from Naxos' having cut corners; the First Great Service was recorded in a different church from the rest of the music (with unsettling results), the cheesy cover photo is from an Internet stock collection, and listeners unfamiliar with the Book of Common Prayer will have to look it up on the Internet -- no texts are included. These irritants merely blemish a fine recording that will fill a hole in many a Renaissance or English music collection.

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