Reviewed by Steven Whitehead
L.P. Hartley got it right when he declared that the past is a foreign country, a point confirmed when we consider this interesting and well performed collection of music from an Elizabethan Christmas - and that is Elizabeth Tudor who reigned from 1558 to 1603. The religious landscape of England had been remodelled - literally when we consider what happened to many monasteries - by her late father Henry VIII, leading to an ever-widening gap between sacred and secular music. The ordinary people would enjoy a jolly carol at Christmastime, a carol back then being a dance, and in the taverns and many homes there would be songs about the holly and the ivy along with Yuletide wassailing, whereas in the churches and the private chapels of the upper classes Christmas music would be more austere. The music in this collection belongs to the mansions of the aristocracy rather than the inns and taverns of those from a less exalted walk of life. Viol consort Fretwork and mezzo soprano Helen Charlston explore this more reflective and sombre Christmas repertoire of Elizabethan England in a collection of works by William Byrd, Anthony Holborne, Orlando Gibbons and Martin Peerson. With Christmas being limited to the 12 days from Christmas Eve to Epiphany, the preceding Advent was, like Lent before Easter, regarded as a time of religious introspection, with music composed to mark both fasting and feasting. Byrd's consort songs for voice and five viols encompass this range, from the joyous "Out Of The Orient Crystal Skies" - ending with a joyful 'Falantidingdido', a word whose meaning is lost to history - to his "Lullaby", a 'song of sadnes and pietie' (sic) that became one of Byrd's most enduringly famous songs. Byrd dominates the programme both in quantity with about half of the generous 72 minutes and, in my subjective opinion, quality. Unless Byrd's teacher and friend Thomas Tallis was included in the programme there are no Tudor composers, at least in my opinion, who can stand comparison with Byrd. I enjoyed the two 'Fantazys' for "Ye Great Dooble Bass" (sic again) by Orlando Gibbons but much of the rest somewhat passed me by. It was pleasant enough but little stuck in my memory, even after a second listen. I have no doubt that admirers of Tudor and Jacobean music in general and more specifically of the acclaimed consort Fretwork (that celebrated its 35th anniversary in 2021 and you do not last 35 years unless you are good at what you do) will get more out of this collection than I did. I do though tip my hat to the guest mezzo Helen Charlston who is clearly a singer with a future and whose contributions add greatly to the programme, along with six other vocalists who, in various combinations, join in on four of the 17 pieces. So, while everything that is done has been done well, this is not the type of Christmas music that brings this listener either comfort or joy. However, admirers of Fretwork - of which there are many - and of Helen Charlston - of which there will be many to come, will get much more from this than did I.
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