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CD reviews

English Music for Viol Consort

[I] John DOWLAND (1563 - 1626): Lachrimae or Seven Teares
Hathor Consort
Dir: Romina Lischka
rec: June 25 - 28, 2013, Bra-sur-Lienne, Notre-Dame de l'Assomption
Fuga Libera - FUG718 (© 2013) (67'57")
Liner-notes: E/F/N
Cover & track-list

Source: Lachrimae or Seaven Teares, 1604

Romina Lischka, treble viol; Liam Fennelly, treble & tenor viol; Thomas Baeté, tenor viol; Anne Bernard, bass viol; Benoît Vanden Bemden, violone; Sofie Vanden Eynde, lute

[II] "Fabulous London - English Music for viol consort"
Les Escapades
rec: Oct 3 - 6, 2012, Malsch/Sulzbach, Pfarrkirche St. Ignatius
Christophorus - CHR 77369 (© 2013) (62'46")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover & track-list

anon: Chow Bentea [1]; Augustino BASSANO (1538-1604): Augusto Pavana [2]; John BULL (c1562-1628): Ut re mi fa sol la (Chromatic Hexachord Fantasy); William BYRD (c1543-1623): Browning; Sellenger's Round; Alfonso FERRABOSCO (II) (c1575-1628): Fantasia No. 14; Orlando GIBBONS (1583-1625): Fantasia a 4 No. 1; Fantasy a 3 No. 1 [5]; In Nomine; Anthony HOLBORNE (c1545-1602): Galliard (54) [3]; The Image of Melancholly (27) [3]; Tobias HUME (c1569-1645): The Passion of Musicke [4]; John JENKINS (1592-1678): Almain; Matthew LOCKE (c1621-1677): Suite No. 2 in G/g minor (Fantazie) [7]; Richard MICO (1590-1661): Fantasia No. 3; Christopher SIMPSON (c1605-1669): Air IV; Air VI; Almain II; Corant III; Division No. 5; Thomas SIMPSON (1582-1628): Bonny sweet Robin [6]

Sources: [1] The Mathew Holmes Manuscripts; [2] The Trumbull Lute Book, c1595; [3] Anthony Holborne, Pavans, Galliards, Almains and Other Short Aeirs both Grave, and Light, in Five Parts, for Viols, Violins, or Other Musicall Winde Instruments, 1599; [4] Tobias Hume, Captaine Humes Poeticall Musicke, 1607; [5] Orlando Gibbons, Fantasies of three parts, c1620; [6] Thomas Simpson, ed, Taffel-Consort, 1621; [7] Matthew Locke, Consort of Fower Parts, n.d.

Franziska Finkh, Sabine Kreutzberger, treble & bass viol; Barbara Pfeifer, alto & bass viol; Adina Scheyhing, alto & bass viol, violone
with: Barbara Leitherer, bass viol; Andrea Cordula Baur, lute (soloa)

In England consort music was written for over 150 years, roughly speaking from the time of Henry VIII to the time of Henry Purcell. It was the age of counterpoint in which all the voices were treated on equal terms. With the emergence of the stile nuovo in Italy a kind of hierarchy was introduced, in which the upper voices were dominant. At the same time composers started to write virtuosic music for solo instruments, especially the violin. This led to the almost complete disappearance of consort music on the continent. England was almost the only country where the genre continued to flourish, although in the second half of the 17th century it started to lose the competition with the violin.

The two discs reviewed here focus on the period in English music history known as the Elizabethan and the Jacobean era, from around 1580 to 1625. This was the time that large amounts of consort music were written, and one name stands out for the sheer quality of his output and the peculiar character of one collection of consort music: John Dowland, whose name is inextricably bound up with the Lachrimae or Seven Teares. This cycle of seven pavans is considered the ultimate expression of what was the fasionable disease of that time: melancholy.

There is much speculation about Dowland's pavans and what exactly they mean. It is often suggested that he himself suffered from melancholia. The title of one of his pieces, Semper Dowland semper dolens, 'Dowland the ever-doleful', gives some food for this thought. However, there is no reason to believe that Dowland was a specific melancholic person. In the liner-notes to the recording of the Hathor Consort Annemarie Peeters writes at length about the philosophical background of melancholia. This is not a new idea: she refers to Anthony Rooley who in the 1980s "pointed out the possible connection between Dowland's melancholy musical language one the one hand and occult Neoplatonic and Hermetic teachings on the other". This is a most interesting and intriguing subject, but can't be discussed here.

One just wonders how then to explain the fact that the collection Lachrimae or Seven Teares not only includes sad pavans but also much more upbeat stuff. Several pieces also appear in other forms, as pieces for lute or as songs. The latter goes, for instance, for the opening pavan, Lachrimae Antiquae, which is also one of Dowland's most famous songs (Flow my tears) and for pieces such as Mr Henry Noell his Galiard () and The Earle of Essex Galiard (Can she excuse my wrongs). Lute pieces which also appear as consort music in this collection are, among others, M. John Langtons Pavan and M. Giles Hoby his Galiard.

The second disc opens a wide spectrum of music for an ensemble of viols. Fantasias take the centre stage, but we also hear music based on popular tunes (Browning, Bonny sweet Robin) or on a sacred cantus firmus (In nomine). Christopher Simpson was one of the few who took the challenge of translating the continental fashion of virtuosic writing for solo instruments to the viola da gamba. His The Division-Violist of 1659 was "An Introduction to the Playing upon a Ground" - above a repeated bass pattern the viola da gamba was to play increasingly virtuosic variations. This collection was reprinted in 1665, and that was the time of the Restoration, which followed the era of the Commonwealth when many composers had to deal with the restrictions on any artistic expression. Although composers such as Matthew Locke tried to revive the tradition of writing consort music, something had changed. Charles II, having lived in exile in France, returned with the music at the court in Versailles in his ears, and he expected Locke, who was appointed in various positions at his court, to write music in the French fashion. It meant that the fantasia had to leave centre stage, as Charles had "an utter detestation of Fancys", according to the author Roger North. An era came to an end.

These two discs are very different despite the common scoring. The Hathor Consort faces stiff competition, because Dowland's collection Lachrimae is available in many recordings. I don't know all of them, but I am pretty sure that it can stand up to them. I liked the subtle way they interpret the seven Lachrimae pavans, with fine dynamic shading. The balance within the ensemble is very good. The more lively pieces also come off nicely. So if you look for a good recording, this is definitely one to consider.

Les Escapades surprisingly omit any pieces by Dowland. That makes it a useful and interesting supplement to the Hathor Consort's disc. The programming is one of its assets as different forms of consort music and pieces by some lesser-known composers, such as Thomas Simpson and Richard Mico, are included. Christopher Simpson's dances are also not often performed. The playing is of the same high standard as that of the Hathor Consort. The dances are performed with much esprit, but there is certainly no lack of depth in a piece like Holborne's The image of melancholly.

Lovers of consort music should consider themselves fortunate that they can add two fine discs to their collection.

Johan van Veen (© 2014)

Relevant links:

Hathor Consort
Les Escapades

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