Despite their winning the Gramophone 2010 Record of the Year Award I had recently come to feel that the Cardinall’s Musick’s newer recordings, of William Byrd and Hieronymous Praetorius, had lost some of their distinctiveness—or possibly their seeming absorption into the great English Choral Tradition was exactly what made them Awardable. At the same time I was rather put off Parsons’ music by the earlier efforts of the Parsons’ Affayre which convinced me that Parsons’ music was respectable but dull. This excellent new Cardinall’s Musick CD has revived my interest both in the group and the composer. There was a another fine Parsons disc released in 2007 by Barnaby Smith’s Voces Cantabiles, again using mixed voices and two or so voices per line, but this new issue is markedly more assured, with greater fluency and expressiveness. Parsons belongs to the talented generation born in the early 1500s, which included John Sheppard and Christopher Tye, and his music shares its technical language with them, but there is a concision and melodic density to Parsons’ work that to my ear eclipses his contemporaries. Sadly only a small body of music from his pen has survived, nine latin pieces, two Anglican ‘Great Services’, two anthems in English and some songs and in nomines. This CD therefore contains the majority of Parsons’ output, and one can only wonder if the lost remainder was of the same quality.
With three recent CDs to choose from it is worth making a brief comparison—inevitably there are overlaps, and three works, the huge Latin Magnificat, the familiar Ave Maria, and the penitential motet Peccantem me, quotidie appear on all three CDs. The Australian Parsons’ Affayre, directed by Warren Trevelyan-Jones, adopt on the whole fairly brisk tempi, and include all Parsons’ Latin-texted music, but lack the necessary vocal suaveness to really bring the music to life; were it the unique demonstration of the composer’s talent, we would be convinced of the worthiness of his work but probably disinclined to repeat the experience. Voces Cantabiles adopt markedly slower tempi, and interpolate the three Latin pieces that belong to the Responds for the Dead into a performance of the entire, English-texted, First Great Service. I’m not very susceptible to the charms of sixteenth-century vernacular church music and although the Voces Cantabiles CD initially shocks the listener with the sheer sonorous intelligence of Parsons’ Latin Magnificat, the ensuing Great Service has that typically Protestant squareness that stands in sharp contrast to the exquisite web of catholic counterpoint in the Latin pieces. The considered tempi of the Cardinall’s Musick sit, on the whole, between the others; they perform all the Latin works with the addition of two English motets, and their years of expertise in singing Tudor music is palpable in the oustanding beauty of their versions.
My conclusion then is that the disc of choice for Parsons’ music is that of the Cardinall’s Musick. It opens with two Latin motets, one buoyant, and the other the glum Peccantem me, quotidie, and continues with the two brief English-texted motets, before essaying the huge Magnificat which alternates plainchant and polyphony in the traditional fashion—one of the great works of Tudor polyphony. Nonetheless, they leave the best to almost last, with the vast, eleven-minute, almost unbroken texture ofO bone Jesu, and end, as an envoi, with the quiet and undemonstrative Ave Maria. This is a deeply satisfying disc of superlative music, just the thing for dark winter evenings.