Following on from their first rate disc for Obsidian Records www.obsidianrecords.co.uk entitled the Spy’s Choirbook consisting of motets from a collection held in the British Library and reviewed by me in November last year, Alamire www.alamire.co.uk directed by David Skinner www.alamire.co.uk/david-skinner now bring us another fascinating and rewarding collection, this time of 16th century songs contained in a songbook believed to have been compiled by Anne Boleyn (c. 1501-1536).
Anne Boleyn's Songbook consisted of works by some of the greatest composers of the early 16th century, including Compère, Brumel, Mouton, and Josquin as well as a number of anonymous French chansons and instrumental works for lute, harp and voice.
The best evidence that connects the songbook to Anne Boleyn is an inscription, clearly made by an early 16th century hand that says ‘Mistres ABolleyne nowe thus.’ ‘Nowe thus’ was the motto of her father. It is believed that the book was gifted to Anne by either the sister of Francis I, Marguerite d’Alencon or his mother Louise of Savoy whilst Anne was at the French court attending on Henry VIII’s sister Mary. The manuscript is now kept in the Royal College of Music in London.
Alamire open with Jean Mouton’s (c.1459-1522) Tota pulchra es bringing a rich, sonorous sound, highlighting the fine quality of the male voices of this choir.
The anonymous Venes regrets, venes tous brings the solo voice of soprano, Clare Wilkinson accompanied by lutenist Jacob Heringman. Perhaps one can imagine Anne herself singing this lovely song, sung here with great intimacy yet with this soprano’s brightly lit voice.
The whole choir enter for the anonymous Fer pietatis opem miseris mater with a quite exquisite blend of voices that takes a gentle forward flow with a lovely layering of textures, rising subtly to end.
Josquin Desprez’s (c.1450/55-1521) Stabat mater dolorosa is a major work to hear in such a songbook. Here it receives a very fine performance with subtle rises and falls and a perfect flowing tempo. The rich lower voices add a lovely texture to the whole choir as they work up some very fine textural passages before a rich, glorious Amen.
Four anonymous works follow; firstly Laudate Dominum omnes gentes that proves to be a very fine piece with some lovely weaving of musical lines before Maria Magdalena et altera Maria where the female voices of Alamire float in beautifully in the opening, slowly broadening as the whole choir joins. This is exquisite with some lovely harmonies. There is a lovely rich sonority as Forte si dulci Stigium boantem slowly opens with a nice use of vocal textures and rising through some very fine passages. The solo harp of Kirsty Whatley opens O virgo virginum soon joined by the lutenist Jacob Heringman in this lovely little instrumental piece with some delicate passages finely played.
The male voices rise up in Loyset Compère’s (c.1445-1518) Paranymphus salutat virginem growing in layers with some very fine, rich vocal textures and sonorities. Soprano Clare Wilkinson is accompanied by lutenist Jacob Heringman and harpist Kirsty Whatley for the anonymous Gentilz galans compaingnons bringing a real period flavour with a fine, distinctive instrumental sound.
There are slowly overlaid voices combining to form a wonderful sound as Antoine de Févin’s (c.1470-1511/12) very fine Tempus meum est ut revertar flows forward. The first of two of Antoine Brumel’s (c. 1460-1512/13) works given here is
Que est ista which opens slowly in the lower voices, developing in breadth with momentary pauses before growing in richness and subtly in dynamics. The male voices create a superb, rich texture with a terrific control in this gem of a performance.
Josquin Desprez’s Liber generationis brings more, fine layering of voices as this work expands in textures with a fine outpouring of sound. This choir weave through many fine passages of this, the longest work on this set, with consummate skill and beauty with some exquisitely shaped phrases.
Soprano Clare Wilkinson is joined again by lutenist Jacob Heringman to open the second CD in this set with Claudin de Sermisy’s (c.1490-1562) Jouyssance vous donneray again bringing an intimate quality with very fine vocal sounds as well as lovely diction. She is very finely accompanied with a central solo lute section.
The juxtaposition of solo and choral works on these discs adds an extra variety and impact such as here when the choir enters bringing a glorious sound in the anonymous piece Popule meus quid feci tibi. Their blend of voices is quite lovely, subtly gaining in strength and power.
Alamire move beautifully through all the little twists and turns of Mouton’s In illo tempore (Mouton), with finely shaped phrases as well as a lovely blend of textures, developing some lovely harmonies.
What a glorious, rich opening there is to Brumel’s Sicut lilium inter spinas with deep bass adding texture and weight and upper voices providing a delicious sonority. Josquin Desprez’s Praeter rerum seriem brings a remarkable, rich deep bass opening, soon layered by the rest of the choir in a quite stunning performance of this remarkable piece. The basses keep a rich presence throughout as it flows with a terrific forward thrust with some remarkably fine singing from this choir.
The final work, O Deathe rock me asleep is not from Anne Boleyn’s Songbook but has long been associated with her time in the Tower of London awaiting execution. Some have attributed the text to Anne but others argue that it could have been written by any occupant of the Tower in the 16th century. Certainly the text is very poignant with this melancholy song given a fine performance by Clare Wilkinson sensitively accompanied by Jacob Heringman.
Alamire are proving to be one of our finest choirs. As on their last release some of the anonymous pieces prove particularly satisfying. They are beautifully recorded in the Fitzalan Chapel, Arundel Castle, Sussex, England and there is a nicely illustrated booklet including notes from David Skinner as well as full texts and English translations.
Though the total playing time for both discs is around 95 minutes this new release is available for the price of one CD.