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1605: Treason and Dischord
William Byrd and the Gunpowder PlotThe King's Singers
Signum Classics are proud to release the fourth disc from The King's Singers on Signum Classics - 1605: Treason and Dischord. On 5 November 1605 Guy Fawkes was caught preparing to detonate 36 barrels of gunpowder under the House of Lords unveiling an act of attempted treason that shocked the whole of Europe. What led a group of young Catholic men to risk their lives for their faith? 400 years later the King’s Singers and Concordia illuminate the dangers of hearing Mass in secret, of conspiracy and downfall, and of protestant relief and celebration, through a project of music and prose. The music, structured around Byrd’s perfect 4-part Mass, contains motets by Catholic composers, balanced with protestant anthems celebrating the downfall of the plot, and a commission from the British composer, Francis Pott. Master Tresham: His Ducke reflects on the ‘9/11’ of its day - 5/11/1605. The script, drawing on historic texts and written by Deborah Mackay for the quatercentenary concert series related to this CD, uses the dramatized persona of William Byrd, the most famous composer of his age, to recreate the atmosphere of change and hope in the Jacobean court.
What people are saying
|"verve and forceful emotional fervour"
Classic FM Magazine
|"this is a serious project, which, like the plotters themselves, has been skilfully executed. Strongly recommended"
International Record Review
|"Not only is it opportune and thought-provoking, but it's one of the more programmatically bold and musically satisfying discs to appear in a long while."
|"The ... motet 'Civitas sancti tui' ... is captured perfectly"
|"I have always been a fan of the Kings Singers; uncanny perfection of tuning and ensemble (this recording amply demonstrates both these characteristics)"
The Consort - Vol. 62
The King's Singers
Release date: 6th Jun 2005
Order code: SIGCD061
|1.||George Whitehead's Almand||John Dowland (1563-1626)||[1.30]|
|2.||Kyrie||William Byrd (1543-1623) from Mass for 4 voices||[1.57]|
|3.||A Fancie||William Byrd||[4.32]|
|4.||Gloria||William Byrd (1543-1623) from Mass for 4 voices||[5.56]|
|5.||Ardens est cor meum||Richard Dering (c.1580-1630)||[2.39]|
|6.||Civitas sancti tui||William Byrd||[5.07]|
|7.||Ave Maria gratia plena||Peter Philips (1560/1-1628)||[2.11]|
|8.||Credo||William Byrd (1543-1623) from Mass for 4 voices||[7.59]|
|9.||Sir Henry Umpton's Funeral||John Dowland||[4.21]|
|10.||O Lord how joyful is the King||Thomas Weelkes (c.1576-1623)||[8.25]|
|11.||From Virgin's womb/Rejoice, rejoice||William Byrd||[2.07]|
|12.||M. Bucton's Galliard||John Dowland||[1.20]|
|13.||Sanctus & Benedictus||William Byrd (1543-1623) from Mass for 4 voices||[3.54]|
|14.||Master Tresham: His Ducke||Francis Pott (born 1957)||[13.54]|
|15.||Agnus Dei||William Byrd (1543-1623) from Mass for 4 voices||[3.30]|
The spine of this recording is formed by the four-part Mass of William Byrd, interspersed with the work of his contemporaries. The underlying theme concerns the loyalty of Roman Catholics at the time of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, which set back any likelihood of their emancipation. Byrd was a loyal Catholic, happy to compose some of his best music to English texts until his retirement from the Chapel Royal, Dowland suspected of Romanist sympathies, and Philips living in exile for his beliefs. Dering and Weelkes were among those who made an early mark on the music of the Anglican church, though the former had converted to Rome by 1605. There are no prizes for spotting the odd man out, the contemporary composer Francis Pott, whose contribution has divided reviewers; I’m happy that his music should find a place here, since it’s composed in a style recognisably descending from his early 17th-century predecessors.
There are many other highly recommendable recordings of the Byrd Mass – pressed for a choice from a distinguished field I would have to opt for the Tallis Scholars – but this collection has so much more going for it in terms of the music, performances and recording quality that most of us would be happy to accept the duplication.
Musicweb-International.com, Brian Wilson
American Record Guide, November/ December 2005
There is never a question of technical polish and precision with the King’s Singers, no matter how many changes of personnel have taken place since the ensemble was founded in 1968. They are always breathtakingly impressive in their vocal virtuosity, blend and pinpoint intonation.
BBC Music Magazine, July 2005
There are two ways of approaching this latest King's Singers 'plot', 1605: Treason & Dischord. You can take a deep breath and plunge into Deborah Mackay's slightly arch narrative - compounded by Francis Pott's decidedly Byzantine explanation of his own compositional role (an uneasy rapprochement between 16th and 21st Century styles). Or you can simply savour an adroitly-constructed programme majoring on Byrd's Four-part Mass spliced with works pro (mostly!) and contra a recusant world view. The idea is ingenious: to flesh out what five composers might have been thinking as news of the Gunpowder Plot broke. Byrd, Dowland, Philips and Dering evidently ambivalent; down in Chichester, meanwhile, Thomas Weelkes nailing his protestant colours to the mast. Suave and to-the-point, Concordia rather outshines the King's Singers whose customary polish is to the fore yet sounding disconcertingly dispassionate in a context which positively clamours for heightened emotion.
The Magazine of the Cambridge Society, Number 57
Not so long ago, we were celebrating the 400th anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot. You wouldn't think that a whole CD could be devoted to a musical remembrance of the occasion, hut Signum Classics have come up with an impressive attempt to do just that.
The Plot itself is usually interpreted as part of an attempt to re-establish Roman Catholicism as the state religion and to replace the Stuarts on the throne with a Catholic family. Treason and Dischord (Signum SIGCD061) ingeniously features the current ensemble of the King's Singers and the period instrumental group Concordia in an imaginary presentation of the background to the Plot from the Roman Catholic point of view. A beautifully elegant performance of William Byrd's great four-part mass frames a variety of other fine pieces mainly by recusant composers of the time, including, believe it or not, Oliver Cromwell's great favourite Richard Dering. It also contains Master Tresham: His Ducke, an imaginative piece specially written for the performers by the contemporary composer Francis Pott. Mr Pott skilfully exploits the sound of Tudor instruments and voices in a contemporary harmonic idiom that is none the less clearly rooted in a Tudor style. The whole musical offering is introduced (in extremely small print, be it said!) in a detailed sleeve note by Deborah J G Mackay cast in a pastiche Elizabethan style that purports to put Byrd's own point of view about the plot itself.
The performances are impeccable, though I feel that such a heartfelt outpouring as Dering's Ardens est cor meum had captured the anguish of the music and the yearning of the composer rather than aiming at beauty of sound, smoothness and elegance. To me it was, like some of the other performances, a bit on the bland side. And I wish the compiler had recorded as well as just printed Ms Mackay's interesting and imaginative narrative. The disc is none the less well worth investigating.
Early Music Forum Scotland
Before I listened to this CD, I had a quick thought as to what music by Byrd would be relevant to a CD of this title and even wondered if the revelations about Byrd's relative militancy in John Harley's 1999 biography would be trumped by further new information about Byrd's direct involvement in the plot itself. It was with growing disappointment that I read the desperate efforts of John Milsom to tie English composers in any way to the political events, before proceeding to Deborah MacKay's frankly embarrassing script 'in the persona of William Byrd' - if you can't find a connection, invent it - and finally listening to the CD itself. In the event, there is of course practically nothing substantial in any of these elements which relate directly to the gunpowder plot, and in fact the bulk of the CD is taken up with a performance of the very familiar Byrd 4-part Mass by voices and viols. Only the anthem O Lord how joyful is the King by Weelkes could conceivably have been directly inspired by the plot, while the rest of the material at best 'resonates with the various themes'. I think this CD is flying false colours, and while the performances of these largely mainstream works is quite presentable, anybody who buys it expecting an anthology of Gunpowder Plot music will be disappointed. Also included on the CD is a 2005 commission from Francis Pott, which fortunately lies outside my remit.
D James Ross
The Consort - Vol. 62, Summer 2006
This disc is on essence a history lesson in words and music. The liner notes include an imaginative meditation on the events leading up to the foiling of the Gunpowder Plot, told from the point of view of William Byrd, in the elegant, quasi-archaic prose of Deborah Mackay. This discourse, intended to be read silently by the listener between tracks, does indeed provide a personal and ,moving insight into life in the difficult political and religious climate of the time. Musically, on the surface, this recording looks like just any other early music recording, - Byrd's 4-part Mass interspersed with viol consort music, organ fancies, and motets and anthems from other contemporaneous composers from both sides of the denominational divide, including Dering, Philips, Weelkes and Dowland.
The singing is admirable: I have always been a fan of the Kings Singers; uncanny perfection of tuning and ensemble (this recording amply demonstrates both these characteristics), and my only minor qualm here is that when they get louder, the sound is simply louder. I would prefer rather more freedom and vivacity (and maybe even some vibrato!)at the top end of the dynamic register - a change of colour to match the change of mood - at the et resurrexit of the Credo, for example. The playing is as fine as the singing: the warmth of Concordia's bass viol adds a particularly lovely timbre to the bass part of the Byrd Mass: Sarah Baldock's sparkling organ playing is curiously not credited on the front cover of the disc.
All of this aside, though, a compelling reason to buy this disc is track 14: Francis Pott (b. 1957) was commissioned by the King's Singers to compose Master Tresham: His Ducke for the Gunpowder Plot's 400th anniversary celebrations in 20005. The 15 minute work is a reflection on the events of the fifth of November, composed for viol consort and voices. Throughout the guilt is confused: one is never sure which words are spoken by the 'criminals', and which by the king's men. It is. by verbal admission of the composer and musical admission of the performers, a comment on the acts of terror of our own century, September 11 and the Iraq War in particular. 'Who was the guilty?'
Pott's composition begins with a fantasia for viols, in the style of Dowland, and returns to the 21st century with the entry of the voices. The first words to be sung are from Alciato's 1531 Latin Book of Emblems (Our state is shaken by innumerable storms), progressing through the 1535 Coverdale Psalter (There is no king that can be saved by the multitude of an host), and into Byrd's Civitas sancti tui. The portion of this anthem (it is heard in full earlier on the disc) begins in Latin (Sion deserta est), but the voices forsake the original language, moving one by one into the English version sanctioned by Byrd,s symbolising, in Paott's words 'final capitulation to the inimical will of an estranged monarch'. Spoken extracts from the transcript of Guy Fawkes' trial, ending with Psalm 41: Let the sentence of guiltiness proceed against him, lead, excruciatingly, into the Advent Prose (Thy holy cities are a wilderness; Jerusalem, a desolation), the plainsong melody sung over motivic fragments of itself played by the viols. The work ends starkly, with a Collect of thanksgiving for the king's deliverance, and is followed immediately by the final track of the CD: the Agnus Dei from Byrd's 4-part Mass, surely his finest movement.
The liner notes explain this program's premise, which at the very least is a novel way of presenting some excellent works of Byrd, Dowland, Weelkes, Dering, and Philips (all of whom lived at the time of the event in question) together with a really unusual, fascinating, and thoroughly engaging modern piece by Francis Pott (b. 1957). It's all supposed to relate to the time and place and personalities of England's infamous Gunpowder Plot of 1605, but, except for Pott's 14-minute-long dramatic work, commissioned by the King's Singers for the Gunpowder Plot's "quatercentenary commemoration", none of the musical works is overtly associated with the happenings of November 5, 1605.
Even so, each of the five 17th-century composers represented here had sympathies (mostly Catholic) and expressed them in various ways. If they were Roman Catholic, this meant either leaving the country (Philips, Dowland) or gaining favor with the monarchy and practicing religion quietly, or in relative secrecy (Byrd). At any rate, the excellent notes provide all the information we need to understand the political situation in 1605 and, using a "where were you on the morning of..." device, explain each composer's whereabouts and ideological/religious inclinations.
What we're not told on the disc's cover is that the program includes a performance of Byrd's wonderful Mass for 4 voices, one of the great Renaissance masterpieces, and although the recording perspective is a bit close for my taste, it's sung to perfection. We also hear another stunning work by Byrd, the Civitas sancti tui, in a wrenchingly beautiful, trademark King's Singers performance. Thomas Weelkes' O Lord how joyful is the King is another highlight (this anthem was written shortly after the failed Gunpowder Plot, probably in thankfulness for the king's life being spared), and the several instrumental selections by Dowland (three from his famed Lacrimae) are ideally chosen and performed.
Listeners will be most taken with - and certainly startled by -Pott's ingenious creation, given the "quasi-Elizabethan" title Master Tresham, His Ducke (he explains its provenance in the notes). Its mix of ancient and modern, including some direct quotes from Byrd, and its dramatic texts make for a compelling 14 minutes, ending with the most delightfully diabolical enunciation of the word "Amen" you will ever hear. I should also mention that in the notes is an "imaginary monologue" by Deborah Mackay in which Byrd "talks us through the events that led up to and followed the unmasking of the Gunpowder Plot." There also are references to the similarities between that event and modern-day terrorism, and to the evils of tyrants and the misguided motivations of "western political opportunists". Yes, no doubt this is an interesting release. Not only is it opportune and thought-provoking, but it's one of the more programmatically bold and musically satisfying discs to appear in a long while.
The British love their traditions. One of these is the searching of the cellars of the Palace of Westminster, prior to the 'State Opening of Parliament'. Only when they haven't found any explosives does the Queen enter the Houses of Parliament in order to deliver 'the Queen's Speech'. This tradition refers to an event in 1605 which shook the country, and which is known as the 'Gunpowder Plot'. Queen Elizabeth had died in 1603, and the Catholics had hoped her successor, James I, would change the attitude of the government toward Catholicism. But they were disappointed, and some decided it was time to take action. A plan was made to blow up the Houses of Parliament, which would kill the King and of course many Members of Parliament. But during the preparations some of the plotters got cold feet, and some may also have realised that those parliamentarians who were on their side, would be killed too. One of the plotters sent an anonymous letter which reached the King, who took measures to stop the conspirators. On 5 November the cellars of the Houses of Parliament were stormed, where Guy Fawkes and barrels of gunpowder were found. Fawkes and his co-conspirators was arrested and executed.
The programme on this disc has been put together at the occasion of the fourth centenary of this event. The King's Singers have chosen compositions by composers from both sides of the religious spectrum, and commissioned a new composition by the British composer Francis Pott. The choice is rather unbalanced: Byrd, Dowland, Philips and Dering were all Catholics, and Weelkes is the only composer in the programme who was of Protestant conviction. The problem with this recording is that most of the music isn't connected in any way to the 'Gunpowder Plot' itself. The main exception is Francis Pott's composition, and also Thomas Weelkes' anthem 'O Lord, how joyful is the King', which was headed with the words "for the fifth of November", and was apparently written for the annual services of thanksgiving for the failure of the plot.
In the booklet John Milsom sheds some light on the religious convictions of the composers on the programme, but unfortunately he also speculates about their view on the plot, which we don't know anything about. As if that is not enough, the booklet contains an essay by Deborah Mackay, 'The Powder Treason - A script in the persona of William Byrd', which describes the turbulence of those years through the eyes of William Byrd - again, completely fictional. It escapes me in what way writings of this kind really help the listener to understand the context of the music. And a comparison between 1605 and '9/11' - the terrorist attacks in the USA - as in Francis Pott's commentary on his work, is a pretty risky business, and is mostly based on a rather superficial understanding of the historical context of both events.
Let us forget the booklet and concentrate on the music. The thread of the programme is Byrd's four-part setting of the Mass Ordinary. It was one of three mass settings which Byrd had written between 1592 and 1595. Although Byrd was privileged in that he was able to compose and even publish music for the Catholic liturgy, his publisher didn't want to take any risks, and printed the masses without title page. It is likely that Byrd's masses were performed as part of the services in the home of Sir John Petrie, leader of the Catholic community in Stoudon Massey in Essex, where Byrd had moved to in 1603. From this perspective the rather intimate atmosphere of this recording is very appropriate. The performance by the King's Singers is very good, but it seems to me the entrance of 'Et resurrexit' in the Credo is too abrupt and too dramatic.
The second work by Byrd is his motet 'Civitas sancti tui', whose very sombre character ("Thy holy city is made desolate. Sion is wasted and brought low, Jerusalem desolate and void") is captured perfectly. In Thomas Weelkes' anthem 'O Lord, how joyful is the King' we find a wholly different atmosphere, which comes through very well in the performance. Richard Dering and Peter Philips went abroad for religious reasons. Dering visited Italy, and his motet 'Ardens cor meum' bears the marks of the Italian style of the early 17th century, in particular in its declamatory character, which isn't fully exploited here. Concordia delivers fine performances of consort pieces by another Catholic, John Dowland.
Lastly, 'Master Tresham: His Ducke' by Francis Pott. The title is a clear reference to the Elizabethan era. Pott uses texts from the 'Emblematum liber' (Book of Emblems) by Andrea Alciato, published in Augsburg in 1531, as well as verses from the Bible and fragments from the official record of the interrogation of Guy Fawkes and the Agnus Dei from the Mass. In addition Byrd's motet 'Civitas sanct tui' is quoted. The work starts off as an Elizabethan consort piece, but when the singers enter the style changes drastically. As I have no knowledge of contemporary music whatsoever, I can't say anything about this composition's merits. I'm limiting myself to saying that it doesn't appeal to me in any way.
I'm in two minds about this disc. If I try to forget the booklet and concentrate on the music, there is certainly a lot to enjoy, but if I am going to play this disc again, I'll skip Francis Pott's piece. That leaves only 55 minutes of early music, most - probably all - of which is available in other recordings. In particular Byrd's Mass has been recorded frequently. Those who are open to contemporary music have to find out for themselves whether Pott's composition is their cup of tea.
Johan van Veen
International Record Review, July 2005:
There’s simply not space enough to explain how effectively Francis Pott’s specially commissioned piece, Master Tresham: His Ducke, encapsulated the whole story. At first, his ‘Composer’s Note’ in the booklet appears to verge on the pretentious, but once the music had captivated me with its stylistic approachability and dramatic directness, I found I was hungry to know more about its multi-layered musical and textual allusions –and there’s plenty to know. Singers and instrumentalists throw themselves into the drama with passion. The spoken lines from the official interrogation of Guy Fawkes are chilling, and the conclusion is memorably atmospheric, as in Pott’s words: ‘disembodied plainsong becomes finally indistinguishable from the viols’ spectral evocation of a ruinous wind in the wilderness’.
Don’t expect fireworks: this is a serious project, which, like the plotters themselves, has been skilfully executed. Strongly recommended.
Classic FM Magazine, August 2005 ****
Modern appeals to Britain's eternal sovereignty over the instability caused by James I's accession to the English throne. This fascinating disc spotlights the conflict that almost blew the King and his parliament to high heaven four centuries ago, exploring the reluctance of Roman Catholics (Wm Byrd among them) to accept the Anglican settlement. The performers bring verve and forceful emotional fervour to these works of protest.
The year is 1605. Guy Fawkes has attempted the 9/11 of his day, and failed. In the musical world, the prevailing British stars are William Byrd, John Dowland, Peter Philips and Thomas Weelkes. Their music - masses, anthems, galliards and fancies - reflects more the evolving creative richness of a period giddy from religious unrest than wracked by a single terrorist insurgence.
This cross-sectional presentation is brilliantly conceived and performed by the King's Singers, the instrumental group Concordia and the organist Sarah Baldock, with Byrd's glorious four-part Mass providing the spinal column.
Among the musical jewels that intersperse this recording is one major modern piece - Francis Pott's Master Tresham: His Ducke. A brilliant fusion of Renaissance and contemporary idioms.