This well-planned Naxos programme is carefully laid out in two parts, each of viol music interspersed with harpsichord and organ pieces and ending with an anthem. It gives collectors an admirable opportunity to sample, very inexpensively, the wider output of Thomas Tomkins, and outstandingly fine Elizabethan musician whose music is still too known. Though he is best known for hid magnificent church music, it is refreshing to discover what he could do with viols, experimenting with different combinations of sizes of instruments, usually writing with the polyphony subservient to expressive harmonic feeling, as in the splendid and touching Fantasia for six viols. Perhaps the most remarkable piece here is the Hexachord fantasia, where the scurrying part-writing ornaments a rising and falling six-note scale (hexachord). The two five-part verse anthems and Above the stars, which is in six parts, are accompanied by five viols, with a fine counter-tenor in Above the stars and a bass in Thou art my King.
Red Byrd is certainly among the most unusual ensembles before the public today: at its core are two singers, a tenor and bass, who typically engage the services of other vocalists or choral groups, and/or employ the accompaniment of various instrumentalists or instrumental ensembles. It has performed much early music repertory both in concert, including festival appearances, and on recordings.
The music of Orlando Gibbons represents the English response to radical changes that stemmed largely from Italy in the age of the birth of opera and a move away from the contrapunctal complexities of previous centuries. Whereas the Italian tended to write gradiose and radical works such of those by Monteverdi, the English tended to write music that was stylistically old-fashioned by the standards of the times, unostentatious with its preference for the sounds of the viol consort that helped make it so intimately poetic and evocative.