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CD reviews

"Royal Consorts - Music for English Kings"

Latitude 37

rec: June 3 / August 23 - 24 & 26 - 27, 2015, Melbourne, Australian Broadcasting Corporations's Southbank Centre (Iwaki Auditorium)
ABC Classics - ABC 481 2100 (© 2015) (78'42")
Liner-notes: E
Cover & track-list

anon/Latitude 37: Divisions on Woodycock; Greensleeves & Divisions [7]; Divisions on Paul's Steeple [5]; William BYRD (1539/40-1623): Pavan and Galliard Sir William Petre [3]; William CORKINE (1569-1645): Walsingham; Jacob VAN EYCK (1590-1657)/Latitude 37: Divisions on Daphne [4]; Christopher GIBBONS (1615-1676): Fantasia-Suite No. 2; John JENKINS (1592-1678): Fantasia-Suite (VdG IV/1); William LAWES (1602-1645): Sett No. 2 in d minor [1]; Davis MELL (1604-1662)/Latitude 37: Divisions on John come kiss me now [5]; Henry PURCELL (1659-1695): Fantasia in three parts (Z 733); The Fairy Queen (Z 629) (The Plaint (Let me weep)) [6]; Christopher SIMPSON (c1602/06-1669): Suite No. 1 in g minor ([alman]; [saraband]) [2]

[1] William Lawes, The Royall Consort, [ms] [2] Christopher Simpson, The Little Consort, [ms] [3] Parthenia or The Maydenhead of the first musicke that ever was printed for the Virginalls, c1612; [4] Jacob van Eyck, Der Fluyten Lust-hof, I, 1649; [5] John Playford, ed., The Division Violin: containing a choice collection of divisions to a ground for the treble-violin, 1684; [6] Henry Purcell, Orpheus Britannicus, vol. 2, 1702; [7] John Walsh, ed, The Second Part of The Division Violin containing the newest divisions upon grounds for the violin, 1705

Julia Fredersdorff, violin; Laura Vaughan, viola da gamba; Donald Nicolson, harpsichord, organ
with: Alexandra Oomens, soprano; Genevieve Lacey, recorder; Lucinda Moon, violin; Laura Moore, viola da gamba; Hannah Lane, harp; Nick Polloc, cittern; Guy du BlÍt, percussion

Musical culture in 17th-century England was rich and varied. That may surprise considering the political turmoils of Civil War, Commonwealth and Restoration. The period of the Commonwealth which is mostly connected with the figure of Oliver Cromwell was not a good time for music, especially as the writing of music for the Church was more or less forbidden. Moreover, theatres were closed and the royal court, the country's main patron of the arts, had disappeared. However, in a way this was a blessing in disguise as the centre of music life shifted towards domestic surroundings, and here in particular consort music and music for lute or keyboard flourished.

During the 17th century a stylistic change took place. In the early decades music was still dominated by the stile antico whose main feature was the use of counterpoint. In the course of the century music for solo instruments was written, often of a much more virtuosic character than before. Examples are divisions on a ground, for instance those which Christopher Simpson composed for the viola da gamba. That was the main string instrument until the middle of the century but in the second half the violin claimed its place in the musical landscape.

One important feature of English music was kept alive in the course of the century: the frequent use of popular melodies for variations of all kinds and for all sorts of instruments or combinations of instruments.

The present disc offers a cross-section of what was written and performed during the 17th century. At the outer ends of the period which is the subject of the programme we find William Byrd and Henry Purcell respectively. The first, considered the father of the English keyboard school - often called 'virginalists' - is represented by a keyboard piece from a famous collection, Parthenia, which was published in 1613, on the occasion of the wedding of Elizabeth Stuart and Frederick V, Count Palatinate of the Rhine. Purcell was one of the main composers of music for the theatre which revived after the Restoration of 1660. The Fairy Queen is one of Purcell's most famous creations and The Plaint is a brilliant example of his art in exploring the emotions of a text. A number of vocal items from his theatre music was published as Orpheus Britannicus after his death.

Consort music was an international phenomenon in the 16th century but in the next century it was largely overshadowed by more virtuosic music for solo instruments. It still played a part in music life in France and Italy but only in England could it hold its ground as one of the most popular genres. Even in Italy the playing of the viol was associated with England. At the same time the violin made its entrance in English musical life, not only as a solo instrument but also in consort music. It is telling that William Lawes composed his Royal Consorts originally for a consort of viols in which the upper parts were scored for two treble viols. It was later rescored for two violins, two bass viols and bc. This bears witness to the growing influence of the style we now call 'baroque', among whose features are the important place of the violin and the use of the basso continuo as the foundation of harmony.

The composer who played a crucial role in the emancipation of the violin as an ensemble instrument was John Jenkins. His father Henry already owned violins, as the inventory taken at his death in 1617/18, shows. John has become best-known for his fantasia-suites comprising a fantasia and two dances, usually almaine and galliard. His Fantasia-Suite played here has a corant as its last movement. Many of Jenkins's consort music seems to be intended for a violin playing the upper part; in his oeuvre we also find pieces for two violins.

A genre which is often considered almost exclusively English is music for a lyra viol. This is not so much a specific instrument but a way of playing the viol: playing it the lyra way. It was not exclusively English but it was probably more popular there than anywhere else: no less than 18 English collections of such music have been preserved. The Manchester Gamba Book is one of them, comprising 258 pieces in 22 different tunings. Among the main composers of music for lyra viol are Christopher Simpson (Suite No. 1 from The Little Consort) and Tobias Hume. William Corkine is a lesser-known composer from the first half of the 17th century: his variations on Walsingham are played on the viola da gamba the lyra way.

That brings us to the last aspect of this programme: popular tunes. These were frequently used as the subject of variations, for the lute, the keyboard or a consort of instruments. Among the most popular forms of variations were divisions on a ground, the latter being a basso ostinato, a repeated pattern of notes over which a web of often virtuosic variations was woven. Greensleeves is one of the most famous melodies; it is still popular in our time. Many popular tunes were known across Europe: Daphne was used for variations for recorder by the Dutch composer Jacob van Eyck; an anonymous composer made variations for keyboard. John come kiss me know has become known in variations for violin by the German-born violinist Thomas Baltzar but was also used for variations by Christopher Simpson and another little-known composer: Davis Mell. In this programme Latitude 37 has opted to mix variations from different sources and add some variations of its own.

Music from 17th-century England is quite popular among instrumental ensembles. It is a very rich source and we probably know only the tip of the iceberg. This disc offers at least one piece which has not been recorded before: the Fantasia-Suite No. 2 by Christopher Gibbons, whose oeuvre is hardly explored as yet. Davis Mell and William Corkine are also little-known. However, it is also the imaginative approach by Latitude 37 which makes this disc very interesting, even to those who already have quite a number of discs with consort music in their collection. The use of violins is an meaningful alternative to other recordings in which treble viols mostly play the upper parts. Although I personally prefer to hear individual compositions on their own in their entirety it is definitely interesting to hear different ways of treating the same material in the compilations of variations. Latitude 37's own contributions fit perfectly into the pre-existing material.

The playing is excellent: the use of dynamics is probably a bit more pronounced than one expects in English music, in particular from the first half of the century but for the violin this seems rather natural - it is in the nature of this instrument. I should not forget to mention the contributions of the guests, especially Alexandra Oomens who sings Purcell's The Plaint very beautifully and Genevieve Lacy on the recorder in Van Eyck. I have some doubts about the addition of percussion in some items, though.

All in all, this is a most enjoyable disc, with a nice mixture of better-known and little-known music, nicely played and well recorded. The booklet includes informative liner-notes.

Johan van Veen (© 2017)

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