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Penguin Guide, January 2009

This Naxos disc collects all Gibbons’s Hymnes and Songs of the Church as published in 1623, and arranged for this recording by Antony Pitts, the director of Tonus Peregrinus. They are divided into eight groups, Songs of Joy, Love, Sacrifice, Lamentation, Triumph, Unity, Faith and Hope. Each Hymne is brief, and each is based on one of ‘fifteen or so’ tunes ‘depending on how you count them’, and underpinned by simple bass lines. The inner parts are left to the performers, and there is considerable variety here (including use of a chamber organ) with some new settings provided by members of the group. Tonus Peregrinus can be relied on for scholarship and vocal excellence; even so, the result is unexpectedly rewarding. This is beautiful music, richly sung and very well recorded. A collection to dip into, which will give much pleasure. Excellent documentation too.

American Record Guide, April 2007

George Wither's 1623 publication Hymns and Songs of the Church included 18 tunes by Orlando Gibbons. Antony Pitts, founder and director of the ensemble Tonus Peregrinus, says in his notes that he believes this to be the first recording of all of them. It would be fair to say that the Gibbons tunes are essentially a point of departure for this project. They exist only as melodies with bass lines. To be performable they require a "realization". A variety of solutions are heard here: from performance of the melody alone or voices on the melody with bass played by instruments to fully harmonized versions, most of them arranged by Pitts, but three of them by countertenor and double bassist Alexander L'Estrange.

The program is filled out with original hymn settings by Pitts, two of his younger brothers, and L'Estrange. Most of the texts are by Wither. In addition to original devotional verse, they include metrical paraphrases of various passages from scripture: Song of Songs, Lamentations, David's lament over Saul and Jonathan, the Song of Moses, the Song of Hanna, etc. Wither was a capable poetic craftsman, though his work might strike present-day readers as rather stiff. There is nothing here to make us forget John Donne or George Herbert. Many texts from the 18th and 19th Centuries are included both to Gibbons's tunes and in the new original settings. The program is arranged under eight headings roughly outlining the church year from Christmas to All Saints: songs of joy, love, sacrifice, lamentation, triumph, unity, faith, and hope.

Some of the Gibbons realizations strike me as excessively florid. The melodies and basses are very simple, so a florid filling of inner parts tends to contradict this essential character of the music, and it sounds more busy than elegant. The new compositions vary in character. Some of Antony Pitts's contributions clearly set out to imitate the style of Gibbons's part writing but are more free-ranging in harmony and tonality than anything from the early 17th Century. Some of his harmonic progressions strike me as contrived. There is a real danger here. When "unexpected" harmonies arise too often they defeat their own effect. His setting of William Cowper's 'Hark, My Soul!' pushes harmonic coherence to the breaking point, as does John Michael Pitts's setting of Horatius Bonar's 'Thy Way, Not Mine'. In contrast, the original hymn settings by L'Estrange and Richard James Pitts incline in the direction of sentimental close harmony-more influenced by Rutter than Gibbons.

Tonus Peregrinus was founded in 2004 while Pitts was a student at New College, Oxford. For this recording the ensemble consists of a double quartet of singers with organ (played by Pitts) and double bass. The organ is a 1766 John Byfield of London now in the Finchcocks Collection at Goudhurst, Kent. The double bass is used mostly to supply a 16-fool tone to the organ, as English organs of that vintage did not have pedal divisions. On the whole I find the double bass rather ponderous. The organ, of course, was recorded at Finchcocks, but most of the singing was recorded at Bromley Parish Church. The performances themselves are technically unimpeachable.

Mary Berry
Gramophone, November 2006

Truth in the inward parts' as Pitts and Co offer an intriguing harmony lesson

This recording of Orlando Gibbons's Hymnes and Songs of the Church will be a valuable documentary for anyone interested in the early development of English hymnody. The collection consists of the melodies and their bass part, leaving the organist (or even the choir) to improvise the middle parts, as needed and as was the custom. Andrew Pitts and Alexander L'Estrange have excelled in fulfilling this task, illustrating both the customary techniques of Gibbons and his generation and introducing some modern, even contemporary harmonisations. We hear Gibbons's attractive and familiar melodies in many guises: sometimes played on the organ, or sung by a solo voice, soprano or bass, or with the whole choir, in unison or with harmony. Once (The Fifth Canticle, alias Gibbons's Song 13) we are offered only the bass-line by itself. There are also a few examples of new compositions by L'Estrange, Pitts and his younger brothers, Richard and John.

This presentation might well suggest a carefully prepared lesson in harmony and counterpoint, particularly with its insistence on how to compose the middle lines. Back in the 1930s, I remember one lecturer who gave his students so much encouragement to develop their skills in this area that they sent him a Valentine via the Cambridge Review which contained the following quotation: "But lo, thou requirest truth in the inward parts: and shalt make me to understand wisdom secretly" (Psalm 51: 6) - it must surely have been a choral scholar!

William Yeoman
Limelight, November 2006

Glenn Gould's favourite composer was Orlando Gibbons (1583­1625), a fact not lost on Tonus Peregrinus' director Anthony Pitts, who in his booklet notes quotes Gould extensively. Quite apposite, really, because this new recording, the first of all the hymn melodies by Gibbons which George Wither included in his 1623 collection Hymnes and Songs of the Church, shows Pitts and his youthful vocal ensemble to be just as inventive as Gould when playing Gibbons on the piano. Pitts has divided the disc into eight sections to reflect the Church calendar; within each section Gibbons' tunes (arranged by Pitts or countertenor and jazz bassist Alexander L'Estrange), are contrasted with contemporary hymn settings, also by Pitts and L'Estrange. The arrangements utilise four-part harmony, unison singing and solo voices accompanied by organ and/or double bass, so there's plenty of variety from verse to verse. Since Gibbons provides only the melody and bass line, there's also plenty of scope for realising the inner parts. Here Pitts' writing tends to be more melismatic and modally inflected than L'Estrange's but the results are equally beautiful. The original compositions, too, are filled with gentle dissonances and tasteful word-painting - Pitts' Miserere Domine is particularly fine. Tonus Peregrinus' luminous sound is matched by its near­perfect intonation and a real empathy for both music and texts. Those familiar with its previous recordings will know what to expect.

Gary Higginson
MusicWeb International, November 2006

Tonus Peregrinus are getting quite a name for themselves. They have been concentrating on medieval and renaissance music. Yet as their conductor is the ever-energetic Antony Pitts it’s not surprising that they have recently released a fine disc of music by him on Hyperion. On the present CD he is again featured as a composer and more especially as an arranger. In this he is joined by his brothers and by Alexander L’Estrange also known as a fine arranger of choral music.

The background to this collection is unique feel and needs some explanation. For the original 1623 publication, Gibbons, in setting texts by George Wither, with whom he collaborated, only wrote the melody and the bass line. Why? Because he took it for granted that musicians would be adding the inner parts by improvising or by following fairly well oiled rules. In other words the composer, in one sense, only did half the job. It is up to musicians performing this music to make their own contributions. That is what is happening here. Anthony Pitts and Alexander L’Estrange have made their contributions. As Pitts tells us in his booklet notes he has approached the task in three different ways. I quote: “We have adopted a variety of approaches from unadorned melody via pastiche to exuberantly post-modern counterpoint”. He adds later “The new hymns by L’Estrange, myself and two of my younger brothers, serve both to vary the palette and to show the continuing influence of Hymns and Songs of the Church on hymn-writing today.”

You might think that there is a curious and somewhat bizarre nepotism going on here but an explanation can be made with regard to the eight different A-mens which end each of the sections listed in the header. Pitts tells us that that at the family home “the A-men was and is sung with ad hoc harmonies by my family at the end of grace before mealtimes”. I wish they would invite me to dinner! So, all the Pitts boys are composers. Therefore why not, if you run a fine choir creatively involve your family?

Yet it should be emphasized that what makes this disc so fascinating, for me anyway, is that it is a collaboration, a holding of hands across the centuries between Orlando Gibbons and four young British composers. The music is performed by a fine group of 21st Century young singers of real talent and commitment. It’s the freshness of the singing that attracts me even in what could be considered a somewhat cerebral project. In all of their discs the choir radiates a real sense of discovery and thrill. They achieve this even when the interpretation may be a little suspect as for example the recent recording of Adam de La Halle’s Le Jeu de Robin et de Marion (Naxos 8.557377). Of course Anthony Pitts’ scholarship and exciting sense of discovery spills over into the singing. When they are called together for a new project there must be a real feeling of ‘What we will be doing next?’

The organ pieces were recorded at Finchcocks: the home for clapped out and rejuvenated keyboards. Pitts used a 1766 chamber organ with a most charming village church breathiness about it.

All texts are given alongside photographs and biographies of the performers. Anthony Pitts has also provided a most detailed and interesting description of each section of the CD. There he discusses not only the individual pieces but also the theological basis behind each section, how they are balanced in the full context and how he came to construct the programme.

The new pieces are in many ways the most successful. Especially affecting to my mind was There is a Greenhill by Antony Pitts, although what possessed him to assemble Come unto me with its crawling harmonies I cannot say.

David Vernier, September 2006

Fans of Orlando Gibbons' church music will be pleased with this generously filled program, which purports to contain "all of the hymn melodies ascribed to Gibbons" and included in George Wither's 1623 collection Hymns and Songs of the Church. The English chamber vocal ensemble Tonus Peregrinus and its director Antony Pitts have made a fine impression in several earlier recordings (particularly their ambitious Naxos Book of Carols project--type Q8359 in Search Reviews--and their award-winning version of Arvo Pärt's Passio--Q6995), and they offer the same high standard of performance here. This is uniformly well-balanced ensemble singing, tonally rich, vibrant, and clearly articulated, and the straightforward style perfectly suits Gibbons' functional, easily singable tunes.

Throughout, Gibbons' original melodies and bass lines are fully realized by contributions of inner parts by various arrangers--primarily director Pitts. Sometimes these settings are strictly traditional, but often Pitts and his colleagues take us into entirely new (for Gibbons), strikingly modern harmonic territory. There are a half dozen or so original pieces by Pitts and others among the 42 tracks, most of which have some direct textual or thematic link to Gibbons and the celebrations of the church year. In addition, the program is very intelligently organized with an ear toward key transitions from one track to the next--and with a sense of how to hold interest with so much "block-harmony" style.

Both chamber organ and double bass are used now and then (although I can't figure out the rationale for the latter in this context), and the program's eight sections are separated by "Amen" interludes apparently arising from a Pitts family mealtime tradition. Besides the various settings of Gibbons' beloved hymn known as "Song 1", highlights include the delightfully jazzy hymn by Alexander L'Estrange "As now the sun's declining rays" and the subsequent "Amen". And, hooray(!), Naxos handily displays track listings on the back cover of the CD booklet!

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