The presentation of this disc sells short what is really an innovative and beautifully performed program of seventeenth century English music. The connection of the music to Oxford, while it's there, is various, tenuous, not explored in any systematic way, and not particularly illuminative of the music. And director Kah-Ming Ng breezily terms the contents a "random sampling of seventeenth century English devotional chamber music" when it is in fact quite intelligently selected and sequenced. Leaving this matter aside, the disc is wonderful. What's distinctive about the music is not that it was related to Oxford but that it was "newly composed after the Italian way," to quote a publication of music by William Child, one of the earlier composers represented. The Italian way was to use a basso continuo, realized here by a small group led by Ng on a harpsichord or chamber organ, plus a group of interlocking melody lines, sung here by three male solo voices. The result begins to approach trio sonata texture, but, especially in the earlier works on the disc, the modern features of the music are combined with some distinctly old-fashioned approaches to the use of preexisting liturgical melodies. The effect is of something deeply traditional suddenly dressed up in modern clothing, and if one can understand why the works on this album are less well known than others by the composers who wrote them, one may also be delighted by the mix. One sees the stages by which the Italian style made its way into English music in the seventeenth century, and there are a couple of less-familiar Purcell gems from the century's end: Blessed is he that considereth the poor, especially, is a richly colored chromatic spectacular. Ng's group Charivari Agréable sets out to convey the quiet world of private worship in which chamber music like this was used, and for the most part they succeed; the male soloists (two tenors and a bass) infuse considerable expression into singing that is kept at very low dynamic levels. The sound environment keeps the singers strangely in the background: one can imagine that one was in an English castle chapel, standing to one side and not hearing the singers perfectly clearly, but the nice intimacy of Ng's performance would have been heightened if the singers had been permitted to approach the microphones a bit more closely. Whatever small flaws beset this release (and Ng's booklet notes are both erudite and entertaining), they don't interfere with the listener's enjoyment of some beautiful and off-the-usual-way repertory.
AllMusic Review by James Manheim
|The First Set of Psalmes of 3 Voyces, for voice & continuo|