musica Dei donum

CD reviews

"Delight in Musicke - English songs and instrumental music of the 16th and 17th century"

Klaartje van Veldhoven, sopranoa
Seldom Sene

rec: March 23 - 25, 2017, Diemen, Schuilkerk De Hoop
Brilliant Classics - 95654 (© 2018) (53'29")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - no translations
Cover, track-list & booklet

anon: Farewell the blissa; Sweet was the song the Virgin sunga; John BALDWINE (c1560-1615): Cockoow as I me walked; John BENNET (fl 1599-1614): Venus' birdsa William BYRD (c1540-1623): Ah silly soula [4]; Browning; If women could be faira [1]; In nomine of 5 parts No. 5; John DOWLAND (1563-1626): I shame at mine unworthinessa [5]; Lachrimae antiquae [2]; M. George Whitehead his almand [2]; Sir John Souch his galiard [2]; Edward GIBBONS (c1568-1650): What strikes the clocke?; Richard NICHOLSON (1563-1639) (attr): Cuckooa; Nathaniel PATRICK (c1569-1595): Climb not too higha; Send forth thy sighsa; Henry PURCELL (1659-1695): Fantazia 5 parts upon one note (Z 745); In nomine of 6 parts (Z 746); Christopher TYE (1505-1573): In nomine Seldom sene; Thomas WEELKES (c1574-1623): The nightingale, the organ of delighta [3]

Sources: [1] William Byrd, Psalmes, Sonnets and Songs of Sadness & Pietie, 1588; [2] John Dowland, Lachrimae, or Seven Teares, 1605; [3] Thomas Weelkes, Ayres of Phantastycke Spirites, 1608; [4] William Byrd, Psalmes, Songs, and Sonnets, 1611; [5] William Leighton, ed., The Teares or Lamentations of a Sorrowfull Soule, 1614

Stephanie Brandt, Ruth Dyson, Eva Gemeinhardt, Hester Groenleer, Maria Martínez Ayerza, recorder

Seldom Sene is one of the most remarkable recorder consorts of our time. Having won several prizes it produced its first disc, not - as one may expect - with English consort music, but with music of the Spanish renaissance. Its next disc was a recording of Bach's Goldberg Variations. For the present disc the ensemble focused on what is the core business of almost any viol or recorder consort: English music of the 16th and 17th centuries. However, the programme is less conventional than many others I have heard over the years. Firstly, it includes pieces by composers who are not exactly household names, such as Edward Gibbons, Nathaniel Patrick and John Bennet. Even more importantly, centre stage is given to the consort song, a typical English genre which has no counterpart in any other musical tradition.

It is not known when and how the consort song was born. The first and most famous composer of consort songs was William Byrd. However, it is likely that the genre already existed before he entered the scene. It seems likely that one of its roots is in the songs which choirboys sung in plays performed at court and elsewhere. It is also possible that the first consort songs derived from the partsongs which were sung during the reign of Henry VIII. That is also the time the phenomenon of an ensemble of instruments of the same family, including recorders, came into existence.

The programme spans more than a century of music. The oldest composer in the programme is Christopher Tye, who composed a large number of consort pieces, among them the In nomine Seldom sene, which gave the ensemble its name. The In nomine is one of the most important genres of consort music during the 16th and 17th centuries, Purcell being the last composer to take this phrase from John Taverner's Missa Gloria tibi Trinitas as the subject of an arrangement for a consort of instruments. Originally his In nomine of 6 parts was intended for viols, but it does well on recorders. It was a nice idea to highlight the cantus firmus by performing it vocally.

Basically all consort music can be performed with viols or recorders. However, considering the difference in character between viols and renaissance recorders, it is conceivable that not every piece works equally well on both kinds of instruments. I can't remember ever having heard Dowland's Lachrimae Pavans on recorders, and I found it hard to believe that such a performance could be really satisfying. Seldom Sene plays the Lachrimae antiquae: it is better than I expected, but not as good as a performance on viols. The latter have by nature a melancholic character, and especially their dynamic capabilities favour an expressive performance of such pieces. The recorders are more 'neutral', so to speak, partly because of their narrower dynamic range.

The best part of the programme are the pieces of a purely contrapuntal nature, such as Tye's In nomine, and pieces with a cheerful character. Among the latter are Byrd's Browning and also an illustrative piece, like Wat strikes the clocke? by Edward Gibbons and Cuckoow as I me walked by John Baldwine. Some of the consort songs belong among the latter category as well: Cuckoo, attributed to Richard Nicholson, and Thomas Weelkes' The nightingale, the organ of delight. The anonymous Sweet was the song the Virgin sung and Bennet's Venus' birds are both lullabies, the first spiritual, the second secular. In the oeuvre of Byrd we also find some songs with humorous or ironic texts; here If women would be faire is included. Nathaniel Patrick's Climb not too high is of a comparable character.

Most other songs are of a more serious nature, and sometimes with a clear spiritual or moralistic character. One example is Byrd's Ah, silly soul, another one Dowland's I shame at mine unworthiness. Pieces of a more sombre character, in some ways close to Dowland's Lachrimae, are Patrick's Send forth thy sighs and the anonymous Farewell the bliss. Although I found them more satisfying than Dowland's piece, I wonder if their content would be better conveyed with a consort of viols.

That said, if some of the pieces left me a little unsatisfied, it is definitely not the fault of the performers. I greatly enjoyed the playing on their first disc, and I admire their performances here as well. They employ a whole battery of instruments, from soprano to sub-contrabass, and they use them effectively. The ensemble is outstanding. The same goes for the cooperation with Klaartje van Veldhoven. Consort songs are not solo songs with instrumental accompaniment, but consort pieces in which one part is performed vocally. And that is exactly how these songs are treated here: Van Veldhoven's voice blends perfectly with the recorders. She rightly avoids vibrato almost completely. In some of the songs she has to explore the upper end of her tessitura, and she does so admirably. The text is always clearly understandable. It is regrettable that she uses modern pronunciation, but that is an issue even her English-speaking colleagues almost completely ignore.

My reservations notwithstanding, and setting aside the rather short playing time, this disc is highly entertaining and a most delightful addition to the discography of English renaissance music.

Johan van Veen (© 2018)

Relevant links:

Klaartje van Veldhoven
Seldom Sene

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