As a Kingsman – a member of King’s College, Cambridge – hailing back to the glory days of David Willcocks, I have many memories of, for instance, This Is The Record Of John – the music punctuated in my mind’s eye by the occasionally contorted expressions on the face of the Director of Music. What I have heard on this album differs markedly from my no-doubt defective recollections in that wonderful and very big chapel. But the intimacy of the Magdalen Chapel acoustic is superb and affecting – and for Gibbons wholly appropriate.
The tracks on this album flow seamlessly into one another – it is the ultimate blandness of which Gibbons is the exemplar: Church Of England blandness, compromise and inoffensiveness – pleasing to the ear of both the volatile Virgin Queen and her successor, the flamboyant and aggressively Protestant James – Iago as the Catholic Spanish Ambassador addressed him in private. What is best about this album is that, seamlessly as the tracks flow, the music is alive, pert, and special. The tempo is always right, never flagging – an issue in some other recordings of this oeuvre.
It would be inappropriate to comment on the soloists because, though named artists, they are kept firmly in check by Magdalen’s Director of Music, Bill Ives. The soloists are not allowed to outshine the music. It is this thrusting forward of the music which is most refreshing. The balance falls somewhere between the attenuated “purity” of King’s and the throaty adolescent sound of John’s (Cambridge) or Westminster (Cathedral).
We hear precious little of Fretwork – again this quite outstanding band of musicians have been pressed into the service of the music rather than encouraged to show off their (nonetheless manifest) early music sensibilities.
Gibbons is not really my cup of tea – not in such a big dose. Nice enough for Matins or Evensong from time to time. This album, however, is definitive, whether you like it or not. Let’s face it, most of us don’t curl up in bed with the OED. I may not play this often, but when I do, I know that I am hearing Gibbons’ music as he heard it and, more importantly, that I will enjoy it.