Thomas Weelkes, who lived from 1576 to 1623, achieved as diverse, beautiful and striking an output as those of his contemporaries who often receive more attention. This excellent CD from the fast-expanding and highly enterprising Obsidian label proves the point. Here the Choir of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge and Fretwork under David Skinner perform 20 enticing, exciting, reflective, gentle, upbeat, profound, humorous and touching pieces representing a cross section of Weelkes' winning work
The foremost madrigalist of Jacobean England, Weelkes also wrote anthems, consort music, music for organ, solo voice and other, varied instrumental pieces. One would expect Fretwork to be totally at home with Weelkes' idiom and thus produce persuasive, sonorous, expressive and highly communicative performances. Indeed, they are; and they do. The Choir of Sidney Sussex is equally impressive. Soloists are drawn therefrom; and all articulate Weelkes' every word and nuance, adding clarity and distinction of diction to the qualities that make this a recommendable CD
Indeed, the performers respond with always appropriate joy, wit, enthusiasm, reserve, celebration, veneration at times, delight, and enthusiasm – all without ever losing spontaneity. They sing and play, one feels, as would have done those close to Weelkes and his audiences, congregations and companions in the first 20 or so years of the seventeenth century. Full and Verse Anthems make up the majority of tracks here; and the performers infuse them with a life and vibrancy that is most convincing. They somehow manage to convey a sense of the sublime. Yet they do not add unnecessary etherealness. Nor do they suspend the business of making music in the unselfconscious way that Weelkes and his contemporaries must have been used to. Nothing is taken for granted; no concessions are made in the direction of furrows which we feel early Anglican music might or might not have plowed. Yet nothing is lost: the performers' attention to detail and polished approach reveal, one feels, everything that there is to reveal in this splendid music.
From the very first piece, Hosanna to the Son of David [tr.1], through other highlights such as Give ear, O Lord [tr.10] to the plaintive and personal If King Manasses [tr.19] these are appealing, startlingly original works of real beauty. And ones which are immediately easy to relate to. The performers' singing style reflects this and is unfussy, businesslike yet never either hurried or matter-of-fact. The CD, in fact, makes the listener want to explore Weelkes further and probably lament that so much of his work is lost. That he had such an unhappy and dissolute later life is amply offset by this glowing tribute from such well-prepared and committed advocates.
The acoustic of the CD (recorded in the College) is most conducive to the music… it sponsors a perfect blend of intimacy (as befits the style) and declamation, drama (as befits the subject matter). The booklet is informative, setting Weelkes' rakish reputation against his skills as musician; it contains the texts, usefully indicating which Biblical passages etc inspired them. This adds to our appreciation of the fact that Weelkes was indeed such an accomplished and all-round composer. There are many other CDs of his work. But for those wanting a sample of his scope and depth, this is an excellent place to start.
Copyright © 2012, Mark Sealey.