musica Dei donum

CD reviews

English chamber music of the 17th century

[I] "An English Fancy"
Trio Settecento
rec: August 1 - 5, 2011, Evanston, Ill., Music Institute of Chicago (Nichols Concert Hall)
Cedille Records - CDR 90000 135 (© 2012) (79'47")
Liner-notes: E
Cover & track-list

Thomas BALTZAR (c1631-1663): John come kiss me now [4]; William BYRD (1543-1623): Sellinger's Rownde; Tobias HUME (c1579-1645): Captaine Hume's Lamentation [1]; John JENKINS (1592-1678): Fantasia-suite No. 2 in g minor; William LAWES (1605-1645): Sett No. 8 in D (Nos. 135-137); Matthew LOCKE (c1621-1677): Suite in B flat [3]; Henry PURCELL (1659-1695): Abdelazar, or The Moor's Revenge (Z 570) (hornpipe 'Hole in the Wall') [6]; Musick in Bonduca (overture) [5]; Musick in Distres'd Inocency, or, the Princess of Persia (slow air) [5]; Musick in the Fairey Queen (dance for the Chinese Man and Woman) [5]; Musick in the Married Beau (hornpipe on a ground) [5]; Musick in the Virtuous Wife (air) [5]; Pavan in B flat (Z 750); Christopher SIMPSON (c1605-1669): Suite in G & Suite in g minor [2]

Sources: [1] Tobias Hume, The First Part of Ayres, 1605; [2] Christopher Simpson, The Little Consort, n.d.; [3] Matthew Locke, For Several Friends, n.d.; [4] John Playford, ed, The Division Violin, 1685; [5] Henry Purcell, A Collection of Ayres Compos'd for the Theatre, 1697; [6] John Playford, ed, The English Dancing Master, 1698

Rachel Barton Pine, violin; John Mark Rozendaal, viola da gamba; David Schrader, harpsichord, organ

[II] Henry PURCELL (1659-1695): "Fantazias & In Nomines"
Les Basses Réunis
Dir: Bruno Cocset
rec: August 20 - 24, 2011, Courtomer, Eglise Sainte Geneviève
Agogique - AGO007 (© 2012) (50'33")
Liner-notes: E/F
Cover & track-list

Fantasia I a 3 in d minor (Z 732) Fantasia II a 3 in F (Z 733) Fantasia III a 3 in g minor (Z 734) Fantasia IV a 4 in g minor (Z 735) Fantasia V a 4 in B flat (Z 736) Fantasia VI a 4 in F (Z 737); Fantasia VII a 4 in c minor (Z 738); Fantasia VIII a 4 in d minor (Z 739); Fantasia IX a 4 in a minor (Z 740); Fantasia X a 4 in e minor (Z 741); Fantasia XI a 4 in G (Z 742); Fantasia XII a 4 in d minor (Z 743); Fantasia upon one note in F (d minor) (Z 745); In nomine I a 6 in g minor (Z 746); In nomine II a 7 in d minor (Z 747)

Sophie Gent, Stéphane Paulet, violin; Bruno Cocset, alto & tenor violin; Emmanuel Jacques, tenor violin; Mathurin Matharel, tenor & bass violin; Steinunn Stefansdottir, bass violin; Richard Myron, violone; Bertrand Cuiller, harpsichord

Henry Purcell is a key figure in the history of English music. In his oeuvre we not only find the traces of the French and the Italian styles of his time, but also old-fashioned and modern elements. The latter aspect is especially relevant in regard to the discs reviewed here. Purcell was a prolific composer of music for the theatre. Here we find modern elements in that he writes airs for solo voice with basso continuo, whereas in the instrumental pieces French influence is clearly discernible. On the other hand he links up with tradition in his writing of music for plays comprising a mixture of music and spoken text. In his sacred music he merges traditional counterpoint with elements of the concertato style as was common on the continent, and here we find the influence of Italian music.

In his instrumental music these two sides are present as well. His trio sonatas are in line with modern fashion as represented in Italy by Corelli who combined counterpoint and concertato elements. So did Purcell. However, he also composed a series of fantasias for a consort of viols. They represent a form of the past, and this could explain that Purcell never attempted to publish them, in contrast to the two sets of trio sonatas. In his time not only the form of the fantasia or fancy was outmoded; so was the consort of viols - or any consort of instruments, for that matter. The Restoration had been a turning point. When Charles II was crowned King he came from exile in France where he had heard the latest music. He had "an utter detestation of Fancys", as the author Roger North stated. That meant that composers writing for his Private Musick, an elite ensemble of musicians who performed for members of the royal family in the Privy Chamber, had to adapt their style to his preferences.

Although the viola da gamba remained a part of music life well into the 18th century it had to deal with the increasing popularity of the violin, and that goes especially for the treble viol. It is sometimes suggested that the violin was more or less introduced to England by foreign players. The name of the German-born Thomas Baltzar often crops up in descriptions of music life in England in the mid-17th century. The English writer John Evelyn reported that Baltzar "plaid on that single Instrument a full Consort, so as the rest, flung-downe their Instruments, as acknowledging a victory". The sensation was caused not so much by his violin but rather the way he played it. In his article on Baltzar in New Grove Peter Holman writes that "[he] introduced English violinists to high positions, elaborate chordal writing, and scordatura".

Could it be that he also played a different violin from what was common in England at the time? The Trio Settecento plays a programme of 17th-century music with the violin in the upper part. But Rachel Barton Pine doesn't use a baroque violin as is mostly played in this kind of repertoire. For this programme she turned to the renaissance violin instead, under the influence of David Douglass, a specialist of renaissance strings. As she writes in her "Personal Note" there is not only a difference in form between the renaissance and the baroque violin, but they also require different playing techniques. For the listener the only thing that counts is how it sounds, and it sounds quite different indeed.

The violin was known in England since the early 16th century when a consort of violins was active at the court of Henry VIII. Its members were from Italy and they introduced the violin to England. Anthony Holborne mentioned the violin in the title of the collection of instrumental music which he published in 1599. In the early decades of the 17th century it became increasingly popular, although the English had a kind of ambiguous relationship with the violin as terms like scolding fiddles and scurvy fiddlers suggest. In the works of composers such as William Lawes and John Jenkins the violin is given a role in fantasia-suites; one by each composer is included in Trio Settecento's programme.

An interesting question is how long the renaissance violin was used, and when players started to use the modern baroque violin. As one can see in the track-list Trio Settecento includes pieces by Purcell which are mostly played on baroque violins. The pieces from the collection of Ayres for the Theatre, taken from various stage works by Purcell, sound quite different when played on a renaissance violin, almost like 16th-century dance music.

The same question rises when Les Basses Réunis plays Purcell's fantasias for viol consort. As they were not printed we don't know whether Purcell considered the violin as an alternative to the treble viol in the upper parts. In the liner-notes to London Baroque's recording of this collection (Harmonia mundi, 2000) Charles Medlam writes that they decided to use instruments of the violin family because "some of the pieces (particularly the Fantasy one one Note) are overtly violinistic, and partly in response to a remark by Anthony a Wood [an English antiquary and author] that Oxford amateurs in the late 1650s were already changing from viols to violins". He also mentions the fact that Roger North, who knew Purcell personally, wrote that Matthew Locke's Consort of 4 Parts was the last music for viol consort.

In performances with violins it is usually baroque violins which are employed. It would be interesting to hear them with renaissance violins. That would probably change the balance within the ensemble as baroque violins tend to be rather dominant due to their penetrating sound. It would probably also fit the rather old-fashioned style of these pieces. However, from a historical point of view it is not easy to decide with any amount of certainly what kind of violins may have been employed at the time. Les Basses Réunis plays baroque violins, judging by their sound, although they are a little less penetrating than in London Baroque's performance. The booklet doesn't mention in detail on which models they are based. The oddest aspect of these performances is the participation of a harpsichord in some fantasias, which "helps to bring out the extraordinarily rich narrative and contemplative qualities of this music", as Bruno Cocset writes in the booklet. It has gut strings, which results it in being hardly audible in some passages. Where it is audible it emphasizes the rhythmic pulse which is a little overexposed in some pieces (for instance the Fantasia No. 11 in G) anyway. In most cases I appreciate that, but here it seems out of line with the character of Purcell's fantasias. I fail to see the advantage of the participation of the harpsichord. Moreover, a number of fantasias have been transposed to different keys, a result of the choice of instruments. Again, I don't see the need.

The disc by Trio Settecento is certainly the most interesting in regard to both repertoire and interpretation. It gives much food for thought, which is a good thing in itself. Moreover, the playing is generally excellent, and that makes this disc a winner in every respect. The liner-notes by John Mark Rozendaal are an interesting read as they put the repertoire into its historical perspective. It is a shame that the sources of the suites by Lawes and Jenkins are not given. Purcell's fantasias have been recorded a number of times, and Les Basses Réunis don't add anything essential to what is already available. The playing is good, but I prefer other recordings, for instance London Baroque's.

Johan van Veen (© 2014)

Relevant links:

Les Basses Réunis
Trio Settecento

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