Musicweb International, April 2010
Robert White died with all his family in an outbreak of plague in London in 1574. He came from a musical background. His grandfather had presented an organ to St. Andrew’s Holborn. Robert White first crops up as a lay clerk in Trinity College choir in 1555. By 1560 he’d become master of the choristers and acquired his B.Mus. He was described as having studied music for 10 years. This means that he spent much of his training period under Mary Tudor where elaborate Latin sacred music was restored along with the Liturgy. Then in 1558 Queen Elizabeth came to the throne and the Protestant liturgy was restored. But there were exceptions, with the Chapel Royal continuing to sing elaborate Latin music.
By 1562 White was at Ely where he married Christopher Tye’s daughter and succeeded Tye as master of the choristers. He then moved on to Chester before arriving at Westminster Abbey. Remarkably, only a single piece of White’s seems to survive with an English text. This may be due to loss of White’s manuscripts or may give us some indication of where the composer’s sympathies lay.
On this new disc the vocal ensemble Gallicantus present eight of White’s Latin pieces. The ensemble was founded in 2008 from members of the choir Tenebrae. On this disc they number eight men, two counter-tenors (David Allsopp and Mark Chambers), two tenors (Richard Butler and Christopher Watson), two baritones (Gabriel Crouch and Nigel Short) and two basses (William Gaunt and Jimmy Holliday). The names of some of the singers are familiar to me from other London choral groups. Counter-tenor David Allsopp recently appeared as Daniel in the London Handel Festival’s 2010 performance of Handel’s Belshazzar.
The disc opens with White’s first setting (of four) of the Lenten compline Hymn, Christe qui lux es et dies. In this first version he alternates polyphony and plainchant in pretty much traditional manner. Later on the disc they perform White’s fourth version, where the composer displays a greater degree of sophistication. The disc concludes with White’s settings of verses from Lamentations. Here White made his own particular selection of verses, which don’t seem to correspond to liturgical usage even if there had been someone to perform Lamentations liturgically in Elizabethan England – Protestant England had no equivalent service to the Holy Week services at which Lamentations were sung. Between these two, the remaining items are settings of Psalm texts, covering five of White’s twelve surviving Psalm text settings. These Psalm settings are inevitably freer than the plainchant-based hymns.
White likes to mix textures and different numbers of voices. There is something of a slightly old-fashioned feel to the music.
I found these performances enchanting and they introduced me to a composer whose work I knew only superficially. They sing White’s lines with beautiful suppleness. Though only a small group they give a strong performance which mixes control with lovely textures. The counter-tenors float the top line nicely, with scarcely a hint of strain, counterbalanced by the lower voices. In fact it is civilised balance which I take away from this disc and a fine projection.
The disc includes full texts and translations along with notes on the music and the historical background.
The CD world is hardly full of CDs of White’s music especially sung as sensitively as this. I could imagine them being performed by a larger group, in a more robust manner. But here Gallicantus make a strong case for performance by a vocal ensemble, with nice balance and well modulated tone. This is highly desirable and we can only hope that the group decide to record more of White’s music.