One may not be too old to recall a time when, upon the discovery of the very existence of Orlando Gibbons' remarkable montage of period street cries, The Cries of London, one dashed to the University Library in haste to find a recording. This was usually followed by a sinking realization: while Gibbons' achievement was in itself astonishing, the operatic-sounding singing voices on the recordings then available didn't seem to do much justice to the more "secular" kind of expression that Gibbons was going for. Times are better now indeed, as Paul Hillier, Theatre of Voices, and the period instrument group Fretwork have combined forces to add some precision in representing Gibbons' vision, and in the process, explores an entire sub-genre of such seventeenth century pieces in the excellent, and very attractively packaged, Harmonia Mundi release The Cries of London.
In the post-modern era, we do not have street criers as we once did, the last generation of them perhaps being captured in such distant works such as the Gershwins' opera Porgy and Bess and in San Francisco by barely-off-the-street-himself composer Harry Partch. In the London of the sixteenth century, however, the cries of the street vendor, offering food, services such as knife grinding and chimney sweeping, or even merely calling attention to lost belongings, were part of everyday life. According to Hillier in his excellent booklet notes for The Cries of London, Gibbons' attempts to collect this everyday ephemera into a musical setting was not a one-off stroke of genius but part of a small repertoire of such pieces produced within a rather specific time frame; namely 1605-1615. With that, Hillier introduces us to a group of composers whose names, apart from those of Thomas Weelkes and Thomas Ravenscroft, are completely unfamiliar to us -- William Cobbold, Richard Dering, and Michael East. As these pieces are highly specialized in nature and certainly were never meant to be presented together, Fretwork contributes a couple of fluid, gorgeously played viol fantasies to leaven an atmosphere redolent with voices coming from diverse directions within the music.
The major achievement here for Theatre of Voices is the degree of characterization given to the various cries on a one-to-one basis. As we are not straining to understand a colloquial text in a remote dialect as delivered through the typically plummy enunciation emanating from the opera house, we can understand what these street cries are about, and fully annotated texts are included as well to aid digestion. As outstanding as Fretwork has been in the past on many recordings, some of their best work ever is to be found here. The pieces themselves are often hilariously funny, but one is struck by how similar this technique is to the post-modern practice of assembling speaking voices from various recordings into a single texture, common in so-called industrial and hip-hop music. As such, The Cries of London is a thoroughly intriguing, entertaining, and revelatory disc that effectively connects the Elizabethan world to our own time.