Thomas Whythorne, Gent, recommended the amateurs: "Lovers of music who do learn the science for their own recreation are to be esteemed and preferred, according their skill therein (sic), above those who do learn the science to live by." Unfortunately, Whythorne ceased to be a gent and an amateur because he had to earn his living. In 1565, when he was in his late thirties, he decided to make music his profession and rushed into print with some madrigals, which didn't sell as well as his publisher hoped. Candour was one of the attractions of Whythorne's life story, which he did not publish. His music, setting his own poems, was sung by Red Bird smoothly and neatly, but with a hooting, inexpressive soprano on the dominant top line and without much character overall. It wasn't great music, neither was Whythorne's poetry, yet when you eventually penetrated the convolutions of Elizabethan English, which were as pretty as they were sometimes hard to understand, the programmes offered a vivid portrait of an energetic, humorous man struggling to survive.
It has been an interesting week for the BBC Singers. On Sunday evening, in Power and Glory, they were heard in splendid music from the court of Philip II of Spain, conducted by Bo Holten, who tamed the once prevalent wobble, and got them to produce a steadier, slightly veiled tone - unduly restrained, perhaps, in sacred works expressing the confidence of an ascendant power which believed that God was on its side. The Virgin Mary, Spaniards claimed, appeared personally to ensure a naval victory over the Ottoman Turks in 1571. In sheerly musical terms, too, Spanish hubris seems to have known no bounds, and the organist Antonio de Cabezon was thought to have expressed all that was possible. Playing pieces by him and others, James O'Donnell worked wonders on the organ of St John's, Smith Square, evoking the fiery splendour of Spanish instruments. The 90-minute programme also had a strong narrative thread (much favoured by current management), with a well-researched, informative script read by Susan Sharpe, which brought history to life without condescension.
That wasn't quite achieved on Tuesday afternoon, in Choral Voices, when Paul Guinery - the most talented and skilful of all Radio 3 announcers - sounded as if, like Shostakovich under Stalin, he was forced to play to the gallery. The Singers' wobble was back, too, under Stephen Cleobury, who conducted them in music by the fecund and musically prolific Bach family. It's not the wobble I mind, it's the scrawny soprano sound that sometimes goes with it. Is it the fault of individual singers, their numbers, or the conductor? The Singers sounded as if they might not have survived the four-hour services in freezing Lutheran churches which Paul Guinery described with such Schadenfreude.Reuse content