These Distracted Times
The career of Thomas Tomkins straddled several reigns as well as the Cromwell era and this had an impact on his music, which otherwise reflects the influence of his mentor, William Byrd. Vocal textures are varied, clear and satisfying; the instrumental works, too, exude sanity in what were turbulent times. Tomkins favoured the solo bass voice, which introduces four of the sacred choral works here, though others contain ravishing, if brief, duets for tenors and sopranos. Best known is the lament on the death of Absalom, which with the verse anthem My help cometh from the Lord crowns the disc.
In the choral works David Skinner has drawn a beautifully blended sound from his Sidney Sussex Chapel Choir of mixed voices; the solo parts are taken by members of both Alamire (the polished male vocal quartet Skinner founded in 2005) and the choir. Although the organ is present as a solo instrument in the title-track and in A Fancy as well as accompanying Alamire in The heavens declare, Skinner transcribed the organ parts for the Fifth Service and the closing anthem for viol quartet – a liberty he defends in his engaging booklet-notes and which are so sensitively played by members of the renowned Fretwork.
The viol music and much of the church music date from Tomkins’s time as organist of Worcester Cathedral, which came to an abrupt end in 1647; he composed the “Sad Pavan” for organ just two weeks after the execution of Charles I in 1649. Once also a Gentleman of the King’s Chapel Royal, Tomkins had good reason to feel “distracted”. Cromwell happens to have been a member of Sidney Sussex College.
The college chapel provides a clear and sympathetic acoustic. It’s difficult to know whether Tomkins or Cromwell would have been the more surprised. Tomkins would most certainly have been delighted.