A review from the Early Music of HMSC's recent CD release of an entirely modern work written especially for the group in 2012:


Hats off to HMSC and Martyn Harry for this brave venture. This world premier recording presents Martyn Harry's new composition, inspired by HMSC. Nineteen movements totalling seventy one and a half minutes make it quite an exercise.


The opening movements prompt the question: how abstract is a composition from the instruments it was conceived for? How much of their typical range, tone, idiom and canon infect the creation of a piece? The initial idiom is that of modern writing for modern wind ensemble, and so the aural lens curiously resolves thos instruments in the music, since the characteristics of the historic instruments are crowded out, or perhaps suggested out. The programmatic construct (the story of a ficticious young prince approaching kingship) is explicitly inspired by the historic instruments, a least by their names and historical context. The unconcious musical implication of this is that the ear is motivated to seek our a narrative thread (in the musical pattern-evolving sense, as opposed to the programmatic narrative) as it would do in that repertoire. A more natural distance from this quest gradually evoles, in which the apprectiation becomes more about the canvas of tonal colours. Having made this transition, we reach the fourth movement, in which musical narrative does arrive, and stays throughout the remainder of the disc. This is a strange jolt, but stimulating one, and it perhaps sets up the ear for appreciating compositional elements which do remain throughout.


The fifth movement is possibly the least abstract, and characterised by a repeated falling augmented octave, as a soporific sigh or gentle snore with interruptions from a known child's melody (a scene from a child's bedroom?) By the sixth we now see the characteristic way the cornett moves between notes being given air time. The intermingling of the harpsichord and (in other movements) the strong-toned chamber organ with the brass is very imaginative, resulting in some really intriguing sounds. Another such sound is the solo for sagbutt and tuning devices. I hear three although there may be more, for there are not only beats, but these break into rhythmic patters as the pitches are modified, which is a very inventive trick. The movement which shares its title with the name of the ensemble is the one which references its customary repertoire most - in a multiply refracted way; reminding me of the 'Baroque Variations' of Lukas Foss.


This is an extremely witty pieces of writing, as is the disc as a whole, and the full hour-and-the-rest is packed with imagination. The titaes of the movements themselves are witty pastiches of titles and turns of phrase from our imagined Tudoreque court. It is wonderful that new music, let alone music of this level of excitement and inventiveness is being composed for historic instruments. I am sure it will stimulate more to follow; and should be a cultural force which helps maintain the playing of these instruments

This disc is one that itself rewards repeated listening. Steven CassidyEarly Music Review


A review from the Scotsman of HMSC's appearance, alongside Concerto Palatino, at the Edinburgh International Festival on 13 August 2012:


IT MAY not possess the cavernous galleries and ringing acoustics of St Mark’s in Venice, but what we did gain from this programme of music by Giovanni Gabrieli – one of the hugely famous roll call of former maestro di cappella of the iconic Venetian basilica – in the more homely austerity of Greyfriars Kirk was a genuine sense of intimacy and clarity.


As the opener to this year’s series of early evening Greyfriars concerts, the intention was to mark the 400th anniversary of Gabrieli’s death. And in the space of a very pleasant hour, the joint cornett and sackbut players of Concerto Palatino and His Majestys Sagbutts & Cornetts served up a seamless programme of assorted canzoni and sonatas that did full justice to Gabrieli’s genius.


Sure, there was recurring evidence of that sense of basic formula which characterises the late Venetian Baroque sound. But a sequence of works that moved with silken ease between 4, 7, 8 or the full complement of ten players (plus two supportive organists), and which embraced the wholesome pleasure of the Canzon prima toni a 10 and the intimate virtuosity of Sonata XXI con tre violini with equal sensitivity and finesse, also revealed the unmistakably immaculate craftsmanship of Gabrieli’s arty.


The warm, clean acoustics served to amplify the perfect intonation of the joint ensembles. A bit of Venice came alive in Edinburgh.

Rating: * * * *  


Published on Tuesday 14 August 2012 



What the critics said:
In the music business, some of the most respected critics, and indeed those who's respect can be hardest to earn, are our fellow musicians.

Click below to watch a short commentary by David Hurley of The King's Singers made during a collaboration with HMSC in 2007.

What the critics said:
In the music business, some of the most respected critics, and indeed those who's respect can be hardest to earn, are our fellow musicians.

Click HERE to watch a short commentary by David Hurley of The King's Singers made during a collaboration with HMSC in 2007.
CANZONE PER SONARE - Early Music, 2011

The qualities of His Majestys Sagbutts & Cornetts have been established for many years, particularly in relation to sound-quality and agility in the improvised ornamentations. The ensemble generates a real sensation of splendour through the dialogues between wind and string groups.






Sunday, 21 February 2010

His Majestys Sagbutts and Cornetts is one of the finest ensembles playing early music today. Their virtuosity shone through everything they played. They were joined by their friend Roger B.  Williams on both the Italian Chamber Organ and the Aubertin.

Television chefs are always ranting on about how certain foods are “special friends. What they mean is that that they go particularly well together. Well, the organ is the “special friend”  of the brass ensemble and even more so when early instruments are involved. Sometimes, in fact, the blend was so perfect that you had to listen very hard to disentangle the sounds of the chamber organ from the rest of the ensemble, in the Pavan by Peter Philips  or the Ave Virgo Sanctissima by Francisco Guerrero for instance. In the Galliard ‘Dolorosa’ by Philips however the voice of the organ was more clearly heard and its contribution in a higher register to In nomine a 5 by Orlando Gibbons was a special delight.

All the pieces played by the ensemble members were highlights but there is not room to mention them all so I will pick just a few items which really delighted me. There was the chattering counterpoint  between cornett and sackbut in Palestrina’s Vestiva I colli. The cornett as we heard in many of the pieces is well suited to pouring out dazzling free flowing cascades of notes but I was impressed when this was matched on the sackbut by Adam Woolf, not an  easy thing to accomplish.

The duo of cornetts in music by Correa de Arauxo followed by the two sackbuts in music by Selma y Salaverde both gaining antiphonal effects played from the gallery sounded amazing. The Batalla  del sexto tono by Ximénez had the instruments calling to one another in echoing imitation across the battlefield contrasting with the gentle sounds of Pereat Dies by Diego Ortiz.

The concert ended with Adam Woolf’s special arrangement which brought together all the performers in weaving together Greensleeves with a Ricercar by Diego Ortiz as well as some lively dance  tunes: a fabulous culmination to the performance component of the Italian Organ Project.   

Alan Cooper. J.

This is a fine, and fun, addition to the early brass recording canon. The playing is expert and musical, varying from tear-inducing to energetic, and Faye Newton has a nice, clear, early-music type of voice which both blends with the brass, yet rises above them when needed. Of the group’s nearly 20 albums, this has quickly become one of my favorites.

--Paul Schmidt, Historic Brass Society - review of Music for the Twelve Days of Christmas...

'the playing is nothing short of exquisite. A breath of fresh air' from a review of our Grillo CD

'This consort is the pre-eminent group of its kind: they are brilliant advocates for the extraordinary variety of styles, moods and genres to be found in instrumental music of the 16th and 17th century...There is a technical assurance and sensitivity of the kind one might expect from a fine string quartet' (Classic FM)


'These players demonstrate perfectly how a balance of scholarship and expert period performance can restore familiar music to such radiant good health that we wondered how it ever survived before. Unanimity of articulation, gently tapered phrase endings and the soft fluency of two cornetts combine to give rare pleasure' (BBC)


'This group is now the longest established and most respectable ensemble of its kind in the world. With such an interestingly varied program - rich in sound, impressive in technique and often subtle in expression - it is easy to be enthusiastic' (Historic Brass Society)


'From the glistening virtuosity of its opening through a bewildering patchwork of lyrical solos, dazzling passagework, and imitative antiphonal exchanges...the effect is electrifying' (Fanfare)


'One only has to experience the variety of timbre, articulation and expressive nuance to realise that HMSC are, first and foremost, fine and imaginative chamber musicians' (Gramophone)


'The sound is crystal clear...the playing is immaculate: beautifully crisp and clean'... 'witty but unfussy playing' ...'consistently approachable'... 'These masterful performances are alive with authentic detail... a rare and unforgettable sound'... 'The balance between all the instruments is managed with almost flamboyant ease'... 'They are experts in control and subtle simplicity as well as virtuoso decoration'...'The beauteous playing sweeps one away into a feeling of nobility and calm such as only really first rate brass music can achieve'

Buccaneer, the latest release from His Majestys Sagbutts & Cornetts, lives up to its royal lineage and adds to what is already a long (17 CDs) and distinguished line of high-quality releases by this UK ensemble. The content of this CD concentrates on the rather broad category of "Music from Spain and England." The ostensible reason being the well-documented use of sagbutts and cornetts in the major cathedrals and by the royal courts of both these empires during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The exquisite beauty of this music alone is reason enough to devote more than one CD to its exploration.

Buccaneer has many attributes worthy of special note, in addition to the beautiful playing so characteristic of HMSC. As in all their other recordings, Buccaneer, from the sparse but informative liner notes, to the attractive packaging, is clearly the product of a thoroughly professional ensemble. The content selected is a pleasing variety of styles with the first six tracks devoted to English music followed by eight selections from Spain. The CD concludes with three more English works.

One of the mainstays of English ensemble music is dance music. This genre is well-represented by Peter Phillips's Pavan and Galliard "Dolorosa", and two Spagnolettas by Giles Farnaby. These pieces open the English portion of the CD and John Dowland's Pipers Paven and Captaine Diggorie Piper - his Galliard, and a setting of "Greensleeves" are used to close the CD. One of the nice features of this collection is that Gary Cooper, the keyboardist, was allowed to solo: the two Spagnolettas show off his light and musically nuanced touch on a particularly sweet-sounding English virginal.

No collection of English ensemble music would be complete without at least one In Nomine. The In Nomine developed as a unique English genre during the sixteenth century, inspired by a short section in a John Taverner cantus firmus Mass of 1530. This short excerpt became a popular instrumental piece and spawned dozens of imitators. One would have to agree that the five-voice setting by Orlando Gibbons played here is exceptionally well-suited to performance by sagbutts and cornetts.

The opening English selections end with a wonderfully programmatic organ piece found in the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, "Fantasia Faire Wether… Lightning… Thunder" by John Munday. This is a very dramatic work and hearing Gary Cooper play it one understands why he is considered by many to be one of the leading early keyboard specialists in the world.

The Spanish repertoire presented ranges from transcriptions of organ (Dolce memoria by Cabézon, Batalla del sexto tono by Ximénez) and vocal music (Ave virgo sanctissima by Guerrero, Pereat dies by Ortiz) to a fine example of an ornamented setting of a secular madrigal, "Vestiva I colli" by Palestrina. The arrangement of Batalla del sexto tono by HMSC's Jamie Savan is a particularly effective and thoroughly rousing example of battle music. It is hard to believe this piece was not originally written for cornets and sagbutts. Savan displays a real understanding of adapting music for sagbutts and cornets. His arrangement of Dolce memoria is equally fine. The first half of Palestrina's two-part madrigal, Vestiva I colli, is the highly virtuosic setting for solo treble and bass instruments by Bartolomé de Selma. Showing that this art of ornamentation is not lost, the second part of the madrigal is a setting by HMSC's very own Adam Woolf. The de Selma setting is performed with solo cornetto and sagbutt with the organ playing a short-score version of the remaining three parts. In the second part, Woolf returns to the original five-voice texture of the madrigal, with each line played by a separate instrument. This difference in texture makes a very striking contrast between the two parts. Although I initially found this disturbing, Woolf's arrangement has such a smooth flow and is so well handled that this has become one of my favorite tracks. I am still not sure I hear the two parts of the madrigal as being integrally related, but they work so well as individual pieces that this almost does not matter. One of the finest examples of ensemble playing is the setting of Dolce memoria. From the exquisitely played passage work by both cornets and sagbutts, to the sensitive phrasing and beautiful tone colors, this piece is surely one of the highlights on this recording.

Also included in the Spanish section are several solo keyboard pieces played by Gary Cooper. At the risk of appearing to focus more on these than the brass music, I must again comment on how inspiring I found Gary Cooper's playing of the Cabézon, Fabordón y glosa. His technique and musicality is such that he can play with the most subtle nuance and communicate his intentions and understanding of the music with utmost clarity. The virginal he played is one of the sweetest sounding instruments I have heard. Equally impressive is his rendition of the Arauxo, Tiento y discurso. I also found Savan's arrangement of the Dowland Captaine Digorie, which includes Cooper playing the virginal to be a very pleasant piece. The virginal adds a nice color that accentuates without detracting from the wind parts.

This CD is the seventeenth release by HMSC. Although their earlier recordings displayed a very high level of musicianship, their sound and ensemble playing has matured over the years and this latest releases is certainly one of their best. Modern brass ensembles that play this repertoire would do well to listen closely to any recording by HMSC to get a better understanding of the style. One of the most pleasing aspects of HMSC is their lush sound, whether playing pp or ff, their glorious brass sound never gets harsh or becomes a fuzzy and unfocused. The intonation is always excellent and the musicality is exquisite. Because they play at such a consistently high level, it makes the very rare lapses from this standard more noticeable. It is only in the area of articulation that I find anything less than superlative. Even here, compared to other groups HMSC is on another level.

As a sagbutt player myself, I am always in awe of other players who can play rapid passages with a clean, even and fluid articulation. For the most part, that is what you will hear on this recording. The lower register of both tenor and bass sagbutt is the hardest on which to produce that light, even tonguing so necessary for expressive playing of this repertoire. I was particularly impressed with the playing on the di Selma Vestiva I colli. Although in the very lowest register the sagbutt articulation gets a bit thick, this is almost unavoidable and I have never heard a player able to maintain that subtle flexibility while relaxing his/her lips sufficiently to produce those lowest notes. The florid sagbutt playing on the concluding track, Greensleeves (another great arrangement by Woolf), demonstrates that sagbutts can articulate beautifully and cleanly. Thus, in track two (Galliard Dolorosa), I was somewhat disappointed with the rather boring articulation used - actually my surprise lay in the fact that at times the articulation was varied and helped clarify musical lines and at other times, it sounded very pedestrian. In my opinion, articulation is the main key to unlocking the inherent beauty of this repertoire. The players in Greensleeves did just that. Although in this piece, I would like to hear a more consistently bright sound from the sagbutt. When playing softly, the sagbutt tone sometimes was allowed to lose its focus.

The standard of cornetto playing has now risen so high that we expect nothing but perfection and almost without exception that is what we find on this recording. There are occasional notes that are slightly less beautiful than those on either side, particularly the lower notes near the end of Dolce memoria. I also sometimes found, very rarely though, the articulation to be uninspired. The cornett is capable of such varied and nuanced articulation, that when one hears passages of dry, equal, motoric articulation followed by a passage articulated with much more direction, subtlety, and nuance, one wonders why. But then the next track starts and one immediately forgets such subjective pickiness and gets lost in the glory that is His Majestys Sagbutts and Cornetts.

--Timothy Urban

Rutgers University

HMSC Ltd & sfzMusic 

2 Whitworth Road

London SE25 6XN

Phone: +44 7956 971453


General Manager: Stephen Saunders


Registered Charity No. 1114376 

trading as

His Majestys

Sagbutts & Cornetts

registered in England and Wales Company Registration number 5792198


HMSC Limited 

Print | Sitemap
© 2022 HMSC