You would be forgiven if, like me, you had never heard of Henry Aldrich (1648-1710). He was something of a polymath, combing roles as Dean of Christ Church, Oxford and later Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University with interests in logic, architecture and music, composing works for the Christ Church Chapel (which doubles as Oxford’s Cathedral). He is probably best known today, if at all, for his 1750 book on logic Artis Logicæ Compendium, but he also designed the church of All Saints, Oxford (now the library of Lincoln College) and the Peckwater Quadrangle in Christ Church. This timely recording brings some of his music to well deserved public attention.
It forms part of the research-based Henry Aldrich Choral Project with academics from Oxford and Lakehead and Alberta Universities in Canada exploring the music that Aldrich wrote for Oxford Cathedral services during the final decades of the sixteenth century. This CD includes full and verse anthems and extracts of service music (a Magnificat and Nunc dimitis) together with the secular ode Conveniunt doctae sorores, composed for the 1682 incarnation of the annual Oxford Act. The latter has not been performed since the occasion for which it was composed.
Several of the anthems are reworkings of earlier pieces written for the Latin Catholic liturgy, but with recomposed words in English by Aldrich, a prominent Protestant. One key example is Be not wroth, his skillful version of Byrd’s Civitas santi tui, showing his understanding of the compositional style of the earlier period.
The music has been edited by Dean Jobin-Bevans of Lakehead University, and the scores of most of the pieces on this recording are available on the project website. The detailed programme notes describe Aldrich as distinguishing himself “as a logician, skilled architect and competent musician”, a very carefully worded phrase that pretty accurately descibes his music. He was born 11 years before Purcell, but died 15 years after him. He lived and worked in very different circumstances to Purcell. His music was intended for day to day services in Oxford Cathedral rather than the sumptuous state occasions that Purcell was invited to compose for. Comparison between the two is not fair, or helpful.
Appropriately the performances are given by an Oxford Cathedral choir, although not the world-famous one. The Cathedral Singers of Christ Church are a 27-strong mixed-voice voluntary choir that supports services in the Cathedral when the main choir is not present (they are resident during University terms). They are conducted by James Morley Potter, with David Bannister as organist. For the music for the Oxford Act, they are joined by the two violins and viola da gamba of The Restoration Consort, who complete the recording with a rare example of Aldrich instrumental pieces, including a Lancashire Hornpipe and a concluding Brouch – a title that seems unique to Oxford and may date back to the earlier Oxford composer Christopher Gibbons, son of Orlando.
Not surprisingly, the singing is obviously not of the finest professional quality, but suits the music and the assumed occasion of the original performance extremely well. Vocal soloists are drawn from the choir. James Morley Potter adopts the mood and pace of the music well, and David Bannister provides well-judged organ accompaniments, based on very sparse original notation. Rather surprisingly the recording was made in the nearby chapal of Merton College rather than in Christ Church chapel.
This recording is an excellent example of research-led musicianship, bringing to light a little-known backwater of English music of the Restoration period.