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"17th Century Playlist"

Ed Lyon, tenora
Theatre of the Ayre

rec: Jan 27 - 30, 2019, Salisbury, St Martin's Church
Delphian Records - DCD34220 (© 2019) (61'30")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Antoine BOËSSET (c1586-1643): Je voudrois bien, ô Cloris; Sébastien LE CAMUS (c1610-1677): Je veux me plaindre; Francesco CAVALLI (1602-1676): Eliogabalo (dramma per musica, 1668) (Misero, così va); John DOWLAND (1563-1626): My thoughts are wing'd with hopes; Time stands still; Giovanni Battista FONTANA (?-c1630): Sonata VIII in d minor; Sonata XVII in G; Pierre GUÉDRON (c1565/70-c1620): Aux plaisirs, aux délices, bergères; Michel LAMBERT (c1610-1696): Vos mepris chaque jour; Stefano LANDI (1587-1639): Augellin che 'l tuo amor; Canta la cicaletta; Damigella tutta bella; Passacaglia della vita; Nicholas LANIER (1588-1666): Love's constancy (No more shall meads); Étienne MOULINIÉ (1599-1676): O stelle homicide

Rodolfo Richter, Jane Gordon, violin; Reiko Ichise, viola da gamba; Siobhán Armstrong, triple harp, Irish harp; Elizabeth Kenny, lute, theorbo, guitar

We know the word 'playlist' from software, such as Foobar or Winamp, and from sites as Spotify. It is a collection of someone's favourite pieces, which one wants to hear on a regular basis. I personally don't understand why someone wants to listen to the same stuff over and over again. It is nice to discover new things - pieces one has not heard before. A playlist may be a modern phenomenon, there can be little doubt that music lovers of previous centuries had their favourite pieces too. Amateurs sometimes put together a book with pieces they liked to play in private or among friends.

Recently I reviewed a disc, called 'A playlist for Rembrandt', which included music that the famous painter may have known or by composers he probably did know personally. The present disc is more like what we today call a playlist: pieces that a singer likes to perform. Although Ed Lyon himself does not explain in the booklet, why he has chosen these pieces, his biography says that this recording project - his first solo recording - "was inspired by the immediacy, joy and freedom found in seventeenth-century music and was made possible by his friendship with the lutenist Elizabeth Kenny." The latter wrote the liner-notes to this programme.

The 17th century was the time of the solo song. England had its lute songs, France its airs de cour, Spain its tonos humanos and Italy its arie. German composers also wrote songs, but these are not included here, and are generally little known. In the course of the last quarter of the 17th century, the solo song's demise set in, largely as a result of the growing popularity of Italian opera and cantata. It lasted until the second half of the 18th century, before composers started to write solo songs again, this time to an accompaniment on the fortepiano.

In this programme Ed Lyon and his colleagues have selected songs from England, France and Italy. They are different in character, which is partly due to their different historical roots. The Italian aria in monodic style was one of the fruits of the seconda pratica, which emerged around 1600 and whose main advocate was Giulio Caccini. The voice was accompanied by the basso continuo, which could be played on a variety of instruments, including the plucked instruments used here. Composers aimed at a close connection between text and music, but there was quite some variety within the genre. In this programme we don't hear highly dramatic through-composed songs, which are close to opera (except the aria from Cavalli's Eliogabalo), but rather strophic songs, where the possibilities to express the text in the music are obviously more limited. No wonder that most of them are more light-hearted and sometimes even have folkloristic traits.

The French air de cour has its origin in the 16th century. The first specimens of this genre were polyphonic. After the turn of the century, some of these songs were adapted for solo voice and lute. In the 17th century, Étienne Moulinié, Pierre Guédron, Michel Lambert and Antoine Boësset were the main composers of airs de cour. In some songs composers added ritornellos for strings, probably for treble viols rather than violins. Lambert's Vos mépris chaque jour is by far the best-known item in this part of the programme.

The English lute song is closer to the French air de cour than to the Italian monody. The style we used to call 'baroque' made its entrance in England around the middle of the 17th century. Before that, English composers were aware of developments in Italy, but it was mainly the style of the late 16th century that inspired them, for instance in their writing of madrigals. In some solo songs by Dowland, such as In darkness let me dwell, the influence of Italian monody cannot be overlooked, but overall the songs are products of the stile antico. Another similarity with the air de cour is the connection to polyphony: many songs could be performed in different ways, as solo song with lute accompaniment or in ensemble, with other voices and/or instruments, such as viols. Most of the French and English songs are strophic. Again, as in the other sections of the programme, the most obvious and best-known songs have been avoided. Dowland's two songs included here are certainly well-known, but not of the same status as, for instance, Flow my tears or Can she excuse my wrongs. Nicholas Lanier is hardly a household name; he certainly deserves more attention.

I just referred to the different sections of the programma. With that I mean the three different styles represented in the programme. As far as the way it has been ordered, there are no sections. Ed Lyon apparently preferred to switch from one style to another. After the aria from Cavalli's opera Eliogabalo and Stefano Landi's Passacaglia della vita, we hear Guédron's Aux plaisirs, aux délices, bergères, followed by Lanier's Love's constancy. Whether one likes that or not, is a matter of taste. I personally would have preferred sequences of various songs of the same style.

The programme is quite attractive, and at his best moments, Lyon shows that his voice is suited to this repertoire. Landi's Passacaglia della vita is well done, as is Lanier's song. However, overall I am not really satisfied with these performances. One important reason is Lyon's frequent use of vibrato, which really spoils a considerable part of this recording. It is out of touch with the style of the 17th century. It was used as an ornament - one of many. However, in the department of ornamentation, there is little variety, and some ornaments are questionable. The messa di voce is hardly used. In Cavalli, I did not observe a real recitar cantando. In the French pieces I often missed the subtlety and elegance I associate with this genre, which after all was in the first place intended for performance at court. When Lyon sings high notes forte, I don't like the sound. He is at his best, when he sings in a relaxed manner. There are some wonderful long notes which he sings in his middle register with hardly any vibrato. I would have liked to hear more of that. Landi's Damigella tutta bella seems too pathetic and too operatic to me. In some songs the last note is sung an octave above notation. I don't see the need for that.

The instrumentalists do a fine job, both in their support of Lyon and in the solo pieces. However, I have my doubts about the use of an Irish harp in some English songs.

The performers deserve praise for their choice of repertoire, generally avoiding most evergreens. Unfortunately, the performances by Ed Lyon make it hard to really recommend this disc.

Johan van Veen (© 2020)

Relevant links:

Ed Lyon
Theatre of the Ayre

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