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CD reviews

English consort music & consort songs

[I] "Infernum in Paradise - Consort songs & music"
Eugénie Warnier, sopranoa
Musicall Humors
Dir: Julien Léonard
rec: Oct 27 - 30, 2010, Paris, Chapelle Notre Dame de Bon Secours
Muso - mu-003 (© 2012) (71'59")
Liner-notes: E/F; lyrics - translations: F
Cover & track-list

anon: Farewell the blissa; In Paradisea; Sweet was the song the Virgin sunga; This merry pleasant springa; When Daphnee from fair Phoebus did flya; When May is in his primea; John DOWLAND (1563-1626): Captain Digorie Piper his Galliard; Come again, sweet love doth now invitea [5]; If my complaints could passion movea [5]; Mister George Whitehead his Almand; Now o now I needs must parta [5]; Sir Henry Umpton's Funerall; The Earle of Essex his Galliard; Antony HOLBORNE (1545-1602): Bona Speranza [7]; Infernum [7]; Lullaby [7]; Pavan [7]; The Fairy Round [7]; The Image of Melancholy [7]; The Night Watch [7]; The Teares of the Muses [7]; Robert PARSONS (c1535-1572): De la court

Julien Léonard, Nick Milne, Myriam Rignol, Lucile Boulanger, Sophie Gent, Emily Audoin, viola da gamba; Thomas Dunford, lute; Miguel Henry, cister, lute; François Guerrier, virginal, harpsichord; Brice Sally, virginal, organ

[II] "Made of Melting Snow - Elizabethan Consort Songs"
rec: Aug 29 - Sept 1, 2011, Vorarlberg (A), St. Gerold
Et'cetera - KTC 1909 (© 2011) (57'28")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: D
Cover & track-list

anon: My little sweet darlingb; The dark is my delightb; When May is in his primeb; John BALDWINE (c1550-1615): Coockow as I me walked [9]; Elway BEVIN (1554-c1639): Browning [12]; William BYRD (c1540-1623): All as a seab [1]; Fantasia [10]; In fields abroadb [1]; This sweet and merry month of Mayb [2]; Though Amaryllis dance in greenb [1]; Ye sacred muses, Elegie on the death of Thomas Tallisb; John DOWLAND (1563-1626): Courant [13]; Orlando GIBBONS (1583-1625): The Silver Swanb [11]; Anthony HOLBORNE (1545-1602): Fantasia [6]; Robert JOHNSON (1580-1633): Satyr's Dance [13]; Thomas MORLEY (1557-1602): April is in my Mistress's faceb [3]; Now is the month of Mayingb [4]; Richard NICHOLSON (c1595-1639): In a merry May mornb; Francis PILKINGTON (1562-1638): Diaphenia, like the daffdowndillyb [8]; Thomas SIMPSON (c1582-c1621): Almande [13]; Ballet [13]; Bonny sweet Robin [13]

Andrea Lauren Brown, sopranob; Claudia Gerauer, Martina Joos, Thomas Engel, recorder; Christoph Urbanetz, viola da gamba; Thor-Harald Johnsen, lute, theorbo; Johannes Hämmerle, harpsichord, organ

Sources: [1] William Byrd, Psalmes, sonets and songs, 1588; [2] Thomas Watson, ed, The first sett of Italian madrigalls Englished, 1590; [3] Thomas Morley, Madrigals to four voices, 1594; [4] The first booke of Ballets to five voyces, 1595; [5] John Dowland, First Booke of Songes, 1597; [6] Anthony Holborne, The Cittharn Schoole, 1597; [7] Pavans, Galliards, Almains and Other Short Aeirs both Grave, and Light, in Five Parts, 1599; [8] Francis Pilkington, The First Booke of Songs or Ayres, 1605; [9] John Baldwine, The Commonplace Book, 1606; [10] William Byrd, Psalmes, songs and sonets, 1611; [11] Orlando Gibbons, First Set of Madrigals and Motets of 5 parts, 1612; [12] Benjamin Cosyn, The Cosyn Virginal Book, 1620; [13] Thomas Simpson, Taffel Consort, 1621

Consort music and music for voice and a consort of instruments was not an exclusively English form in the renaissance, but it was there more popular than anywhere else, and also remained longer in vogue in England than elsewhere. The latest consort music was written by Henry Purcell in about 1680. The first pieces for an instrumental consort date from the time of Henry VIII who reigned from 1509 to 1547. He attracted Italian musicians to his court, and this was the start of a long and impressive tradition. Consort music could be written for various combinations of instruments. Most music was intended for an ensemble of viols in various ranges, but most of this repertoire could also be played on other instruments, such as recorders or a combination of instruments of different families. These instruments could be joined by plucked or keyboard instruments. This explains the difference in scoring between the discs reviewed here. Musicall Humors is a consort of viols, Rayuela performs consort music with recorders.

The genre of the consort song is even more English than consort music without a vocal part. It is assumed that it has its roots in the theatre where boys from the Chapel Royal and cathedrals participated in performances and sang songs with instrumental accompaniment. Like the music for an instrumental consort this kind of songs could be performed in various scorings. The songbooks which John Dowland published around 1600 bear witness to that: most of them can be performed with a consort of voices, with or without accompaniment, by a solo voice with lute or as a consort song.

The English repertoire of this time is sizeable which can be explained from the fact that England under Elizabeth I experienced a 'golden age'. People of some education were expected to be able to sing or to play an instrument. Many of them had their own music teacher. Because of that there was a large demand of music to be played and sung. One notable feature of this time is the melancholic character of many pieces, vocal and instrumental. Martina Joos, in her liner-notes to Rayuela's recording, connects this with the insecurity which was also a feature of the time. This had to do with the political developments and England's position in Europe and the world, and also with the fact that Elizabeth, unmarried and childless, didn't have a natural heir. Who would succeed the Protestant Queen, once she had passed away? In the background were the religious conflicts between Protestants and Catholics. This could be a plausible explanation, but there were other countries in Europe where there was probably even more insecurity in religious and political matters and where the music doesn't express the same amount of melancholy as in England. It seems that melancholy was also - maybe even in the first place - fashionable. One could even argue that it wasn't taken that seriously. In the booklet of Musicall Humors's disc Jean-Marie Poirier points out that a part of the repertoire was quite joyful, even exuberant. He quotes Dowland who stated: "No doubt pleasant are the teares which Musicke weepes, neither are teares shed always in sorrow, but sometime in joy and gladness".

This ensemble's disc includes various pieces by Dowland and especially by Anthony Holborne which represent the more joyful side of the repertoire of this period. The latter even seems to poke fun at the melancholy in music: The Teares of the Muses suggests a sad piece, but in fact it is a vivacious galliard. The various pieces about spring - mostly connected to May - also bear witness to the brightness in English music of the renaissance. It should not be overlooked, though, that the reference to May and spring in general was often also metaphorical. In the anonymous When May in in his prime (Rayuela) May is used as a "metephor for the time of life of man, which must be seized at the right time. For once May comes to an end, so too will the best time for man have irretrievably passed by". Thomas Morley uses the months of the year as an expression of the feelings of "my mistress": "April is in my mistress's face (...) but in her heart a cold December".

Some songs have a hardly-hidden social message, such as Orlando Gibbons's The Silver Swan (Rayuela) which ends with the phrase: "More geese than swans now live, more fools than wise". Others are serious, such as the moving consort song Ye sacred muses, an Elegy on the Death of Thomas Tallis by his pupil William Byrd (Rayuela). Consort songs could also have a sacred text, like the anonymous lullaby Sweet was the song the Virgin sung (Musicall Humors): "Sweet was the song the Virgin sung, when she to Bethlem Judah came".

Both recordings are generally very good. Consort songs are not solo songs with accompaniment but rather ensemble pieces in which the upper part is sung. That means that the voice should be part of the ensemble and blend perfectly with the instruments. That is the case in both recordings. There is quite a difference in the treatment of ornamentation. Andrea Lauren Brown adds pretty much, Eugénie Warnier hardly any; the former practice seems to be more historically justified than the latter. It is regrettable that neither of the two singers make an attempt to pronounce the texts in a historical manner, although much research has been done in this department. Eugénie Warnier's pronunciation is quite good but not perfect. In some songs I noted differences between the text which is sung and that which is printed in the booklet.

Musicall Humors produces a quite full sound which is very different from what was the standard in this repertoire some decades ago. That was probably first noticeable in the recordings of English consort music by Hespèrion XX. Since then English viol consorts have also adopted a more saturated sound. Musicall Humors also doesn't shrink from strong dynamic shading. Although the track-list doesn't indicate the exact line-up for the various pieces in the programme, it is clear that at least in some pieces - probably even in all of them - more than one instrument participates in the playing of some parts. Here and there the use of two plucked instrument can be noted. It would be interesting to know to what extent this practice can be historically justified.

Rayuela is more modest in this respect, playing all the pieces with one instrument per part. It takes some liberties in the way they treat some songs, for instance by adding some 'special effects' in Morley's Now is the Month of Maying. That is not needed and doesn't make the piece any more interesting. In this recording it is regrettable that some songs are not performed complete.

To sum up, both discs bring interesting and varied programmes, although most songs at Rayuela's disc are rather well-known. As far as the repertoire is concerned the disc of Musicall Humors is a little more interesting. The performances are good and often even outstanding. Every lover of this repertoire will greatly enjoy these two productions.

Johan van Veen (© 2013)

Relevant links:

Musicall Humors

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