Performance *** - Sound ****
"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."
BBC Music Magazine - July 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."
American Record Guide - November - December 2005
"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 Consort - Vol 62 - Summer 2006
Artistic quality 9 - Sound quality 8
"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 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."
"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." ****
Classic Fm Magazine - August 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."
International Record Review - July 2005
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