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"Oranges and Lemons - John Playford's English Dancing Master"

The Playfords

rec: August 28 - 30, 2006, Halle/Saale
Coviello Classics - COV 20709 (© 2007) (61'24")

anon: Blacke Almaine (Almaine for as many as will); Thomas CAMPION (1567-1620): I care not for these Ladies (Circle of couples) [1]; John PLAYFORD (1623-1686/7) (ed): An Italian Rant (Fuggi, fuggi da' lieti amanti); Bellamira/Bobbing Joe; Epping Forrest; Heart's Ease (Sing care away - Round for four); Jamaica (The Joviall Broome Man); Jenny Pluck Pears (Round for six); Lilli Burlero (Ho Brother Teague - Longways for as many as will); Newcastle (Round for eight); Oranges and Lemons (Squaire for four couples); Scotch Cap (Longways for six); The Indian Queen (Longways for as many as will); Upon a Summer's Day (I Smell a Rat - Longways for six); Henry PURCELL (1659-1695): Gentle Shepherds (An Elegy on the Death of Mr. John Playford) (Z 464); trad (English): The Star of the County Down (A constant wife);

(Sources: [1] Thomas Campion, A Book of Ayres, 1601)

Björn Werner, baritone; Annegret Fischer, recorder; Benjamin Dreßler, viola da gamba; Erik Warkenthin, archlute, chitarrone, guitar; Nora Thiele, percussion; with: Anne Schneider, soprano; Martin Ehrhardt, recorder; Claudia Mende, violin

The 17th century in England was a time of great uncertainly and instability. The Revolution, the Commonwealth under Cromwell, the Restoration of the monarchy, the plague of 1665 and the Great Fire of London in 1666 - they shook English society. It seems very plausible that these things encouraged people to look for musical entertainment, as Christoph Heyl suggests in his programme notes.

The most prominent music pinter, John Playford and his son Henry, took profit from this as they published collections of music on a regular basis. These were mainly aimed at the middle class, for most of whose members it was self-evident to be able to sing, dance or play an instrument. This doesn't mean the compositions in Palyford's publications were easily playable stuff. Many members of the middle classes must have had great musical skills. The main feature of the music in these collections was that popular ballads and tunes were predominant. Old ballads were sometimes presented with a new text. Dance music also was required as many members of the middle class took dancing lessons. In a time when public entertainment was forbidden - the years of the Commonwealth - the playing and singing in private homes was the only alternative. And this had a strong influence on the cultural climate which lasted well into the time when the monarchy was restored and with it public entertainment.

One of the most successful collections printed by John Playford was The Dancing Master of 1651. It was reprinted no less than 18 times until 1728. Pieces from it are played on discs with English music of the 17th century, but I have never before encountered a disc almost entirely devoted to this collection and comparable music from other sources. In addition two pieces of a more 'sophisticated' character are performed: two songs by Thomas Campion and Henry Purcell respectively. The latter's Gentle Shepherd being an Elegy on the Death of Mr. John Playford appropriately closes the disc. Playford is mentioned as the composer of the pieces from the Dancing Master, but that is anything but certain. Also the dance choreographies are probably made by others.

The melodies are not always of English origin. Many of them can be found in other European countries, like Germany and Italy, and in the collection Der Fluyten Lust-Hof of the Dutch recorder player Jacob van Eyck. There is also much uncertainty as to how these melodies should be performed, as they are all printed with a single melodic line. There is no harmonisation, no basso continuo part and there are no references to the original ballads or songs or suggestions regarding instrumentation. Therefore an ensemble has to make their own arrangements of this repertoire, and this means that the players need to have a thorough understanding of the performance practices in 17th-century England as well as fantasy and improvisational skills.

As far as I can tell the members of The Playfords meet these requirements, and that leads to an enjoyable and entertaining programme. In addition we get here an interesting portrait of musical life in 17th-century England, illustrating the writings from the time, for instance the diaries of Sir Samuel Pepys. Least successful are the contributions of soprano Anne Schneider, especially because of her vibrato which is totally out of place here. It particularly spoils Purcell's Elegy. Björn Werner catches the character of this music better. But the largest part of this disc is filled with instrumental music, and this has been performed very well. It is a bit of a shame that the ballads are not performed at full length here. With the skills of the players it shouldn't have been a problem to perform them with enough variety to keep the listener's attention. Also disappointing is the unhistoric pronunciation of the English texts.
But that doesn't withhold me from recommending this disc to those who like this kind of repertoire.

Johan van Veen (© 2009)

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