While early English Baroque is not an area of music which generally comes to mind when we think of controversial composers, it seems that the scores of composers we now associate with purity and conventionalism had their own streaks of radicalism in their time, political and otherwise, and a fair few were exiled. The Choir of Royal Holloway, directed by Rupert Gough, and the English Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble decided to join forces to root out a few of the old English rascals and showcase their works. In fact, the only piece not written by an exiled Englishman on the programme was the Fantasie à 6 by the self-named Giovanni Coprario, having changed his name from John Cooper in order to appear more fashionably Italian. The instrumental item was a delight, each member of the English Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble both able to hold their own as separate instrumentalists and blend wonderfully as a group without losing the integrity of their own line.

The English Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble © Hugh Beauchamp
The English Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble
© Hugh Beauchamp

The vast bulk of the programme was made up of the works of Peter Philips, a little-known English composer to whom director Rupert Gough seemed very keen to introduce the audience – and understandably so, given the wealth of neglected music that has been penned by him. Philips both opened and closed the program with mixed choral and instrumental pieces: his Benedictus Deus noster and Jubilate Deo omnis terra. The choir’s diction was crisp yet not harsh, every phrase considered and yet feeling, and the balance between the choir and the English Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble was well handled, the rich, exuberant sound of both the ensembles merging to fill the hall splendidly. The unaccompanied choir piece, Alma redemptoris, was also considerately presented, and delicately beautiful in contrast to the far louder piece it was preceded by.

Dolorosa Pavan and Galliard, an instrumental piece written by Philips during his brief spell in prison (and a surprisingly upbeat work given both its gestation period and title), moved with intention in the Pavan, each of the lines weaving seamlessly around each other; the Galliard was not quite as successful in this capacity, but still an enjoyable rendition by all accounts. While it was interesting to see an eight-part motet arranged for two alto soloists and two bands of instrumentalists in Panis sancte, panis vive, the sheer volume of the sackbuts and cornetts was a little overbearing and it was a shame not to hear more of the singers, especially given that solo altos Louise Laprun and Felicity Turner stunned the audience with their splendidly rich and voluptuous voices when they could be clearly heard. Another far more successful rearrangement of a work was given in Veni Sancte Spiritus, when the male members of the choir and solo cornett (played by Gawain Glenton) interchanged ideas, each individual part allowed its own idiomatic chance to shine.

Richard Dering was another lesser-known English exile to grace the programme, and ended the first half of the concert with two works. The first item, O bone Jesu, was a piece for solo sopranos and organ. Soloists Samantha Cobb and Hilary Cronin were fantastic individually and sublime as a pair, Cobb’s pure and sweet voice silvery against Cronin’s multifaceted and colourful tone. The piece was simply and beautifully presented with just continuo accompaniment – a testament to the fact that often less is more. By contrast the second of Dering’s items, Factum est silentium, showed that sometimes the sheer force of choir and instruments entwined is overwhelmingly powerful and can be used to great effect. The choice to incorporate the sackbuts and cornetts into the piece as a quasi-ritornello proved incredibly well judged, the roar of the dragon and the silence of Heaven evoked simultaneously by the juxtaposition of two such very different textures.

Of course, in a programme of such colourful early English exiles, no concert would have been complete without an appearance of the works of John Bull. The jaunty Bull Masque opened the second half of the concert with a spring in its step. Gloria tibi Trininitas, an improvisational-style work based on a hymn, brought choral director Rupert Gough to the organ as a soloist, and the counterpoint was handled with complete individuality and character in each of the lines. Choral work In the departure of the Lord was interestingly the only item in a programme of English music to actually be sung in English, and the clarity of the text proved once again that the choir’s diction was simply superb throughout.