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"The New Old Albion - Music around the Harp Consorts of William Lawes"

Il Caleidoscopio Ensemble

rec: Nov 2014, Crema
Brilliant Classics - 95274 (© 2016) (61'21")
Liner-notes: E
Cover & track-list

William BYRD (c1543-1623): Pavana The Earle of Salisbury - Galiardo; The Bells; John DOWLAND (1563-1626): Prelude in g minor; William LAWES (1602-1645): Harp Consort IV; Harp Consort VIII; Harp Consort XI; Matthew LOCKE (1621-1677): Suite IV 'for several friends'; John PLAYFORD (1623-1686) (ed): Duke of Norfolk or Pauls Steeple; Faronells Division on a Ground; Christopher SIMPSON (c1602-1669): Divisions in e minor 'for the practice of learners'

Lathika Vitanage, violin; Noelia Reverte Reche, viola da gamba; Flora Papadopoulos, arpa doppia; Michele Pasotti, lute, theorbo

The harp is one of those instruments which does not appear very often in concerts of early music. It is mostly used in Italian music, and especially in performances of operas from the 17th century. Its use as a basso continuo instrument at that time is well documented. It is not immediately associated with English music of the same period. And indeed, the Harp Consorts by William Lawes which were the inspiration for the present disc, are rather unique in English repertoire of the 17th century.

The harp was not unknown in England. There are various references to it in English sources, and these usually refer to the wire-strung Irish harp. From the turn of the 17th century the court employed the Irish harp player Cormacke McDermott. Under Charles I, when Lawes composed his Harp Consorts, his position was taken by Philip Squire and in addition two further players of the Irish harp were active at the court. However, that is not to say that the harp parts are intended for the Irish harp. In fact, the identity of the instrument for which Lawes composed these pieces, has been the subject of debate among scholars and performers.

The alternative would be the Italian gut-strung triple harp or arpa doppia. In 1625 Henrietta Maria, youngest daughter of King Henry IV of France, married Charles I. In her entourage was the harpist John LeFlelle (Jean LeFlesle) who was a player of this instrument of great repute. The French theorist Marin Mersenne wrote: "Those who have heard Flesle, who plays this harp (Harpe ordinaire à trois rangs) with perfection, are not sure whether to prefer its sound to that of the lute. The harp's advantage lies in the fact that all its strings can be sounded separately and that it can be tuned more perfectly than the lute." It seems likely that Flesle's presence inspired Lawes to compose music for a rather uncommon combination of instruments. A review is not the place to go into detail about the arguments in favour of the triple or the Irish harp. In his article 'A Tale of Two Harps: Issues Arising from Recordings of William Lawes’s Harp Consorts' (*) John Cunningham discusses the issue in depth.

In this recording Flora Papadopoulos plays a triple harp. Whether this indicates that the ensemble deliberately opted for this instrument is impossible to say. The issue is hardly mentioned. The starting point of this disc is music life at the court of Charles II, after the Restoration. "The success of Lawes' Harp Consorts among the musicians of the next generation is highlighted by a posthumous manuscript drafted by the copyist and singer Frances Withie of Oxford (...). The harp parts of this manuscript are dense and intricate, and lead us to think of Charles Evans' Italian harp, present at the court of Charles II - the chromatic arpa doppia with gut strings". One of the main problems which Cunningham mentions in his article is the weak sound of the triple harp. There is no problem in this regard here, although obviously I can't tell to what extent the recording technique has favoured the harp in order to make it better audible.

The collection includes eleven 'suites'. That is to say: only the Consorts 1 to 6 include several dances: alman, corant, saraband and aire. The remaining consorts include just one piece: an aire (Consort No. 7), a pavan with divisions (Consorts Nos. 8 - 10) or a fantazy (Consort No. 11). The autograph is preserved in the Bodleian Library in Oxford. Unfortunately the harp parts of the Consorts 3 to 6 are missing, but are included in a copy at Christ Church in Oxford. However, the latter seem keyboard reductions. In 2008 a complete edition was published with reconstructions of the missing harp parts. The track-list and the liner-notes refer to a manuscript called Ob.Ms. Mus.Sch B3. Is this the copy at Christ Church? If so, why didn't they use the reconstructions in the edition of 2008? As I have no other recordings in my collection I am not able to compare these performances with other interpretations.

The programme includes three of the Harp Consorts. In addition we hear music from about the same time, although Byrd and Dowland are of an earlier and Matthew Locke of a later generation. The harp is not only used in Lawes' Harp Consorts, but also, for instance, in Locke's Suite IV from the collection For several Friends. It is scored for treble viol or violin and bass viol with an optional basso continuo part. The latter is played here by theorbo and harp. The latter instrument is also involved in the two pieces from John Playford's The Division Viol (Playford is unjustly mentioned in the track-list as the composer) and in Simpson's Divisions in e minor. Is there any good argument for this practice? According to Cunningham there is. "The harp consort appears to have developed from the substitution of the harp for the organ in the accompaniment of divisions in the early seventeenth century", referring here to Peter Holman. The performance of Byrd's keyboard piece The Bells on harp and theorbo seems far less plausible, and I certainly prefer to hear it on harpsichord or virginals.

So this disc raises some questions, but that said, from a musical point of view it is an unequivocal success. I have greatly enjoyed the music and admired the performances. Every player is a fine artist in his or her own right, and together they deliver outstanding performances. If you like English consort music you should investigate this disc which offers a view on a lesser-known aspect of this repertoire.

(*) Journal of the National Early Music Association, November 2007

Johan van Veen (© 2017)

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