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CD reviews

"Divisions and Fantasias"

Saskia Coolen, recorder, viola da gambaa; Rainer Zipperling, viola da gamba; Patrick Ayrton, harpsichord, organ

rec: Nov 2005 & Oct 2007, Bunnik (Neth), Oude Dorpskerk
Globe - GLO 5227 (CD) ( 2007) (73'38")

anon: Daphne; Uppon la mi re; Hugh ASTON (c1485-1558): A Hornepype; John COPRARIO c1570/80-1626): Fantasia-suite in d minor; Fantasia-suite No 1 in g minor; Fantasia-suite No 2 in g minor; William LAWES (1602-1645): Fantasia-suite in D; Fantasia-suite in g minor; David MELL (1604-1662): John come kiss me now [2]; Christopher SIMPSON (c1605-1669): Divisions on a ground in d minora [1]; George TOLLET (17th C): Tollet's Ground [2]

(Sources: [1] The Division Viol, 1667; [2] John Playford (ed), The Division Violist, 1684-85)

In 17th-century England the royal court played a central role in cultural, and more specifically, musical life. But members of the wealthy upperclass gradually started to play their role too. Learning to sing or to play an instrument became part of their education, and music became an increasingly important part of everyday life. As a result there was an increase in the demand for sheet music and musical instruments. This is reflected by the number of collections of music and also treatises on how to play the recorder or the viola da gamba, to mention two of the most popular instruments.

This disc presents two genres of music which were very popular in the 17th century, and were played both at court and in private homes. One of them is music for 'consort', a kind of ensemble which today is almost exclusively associated with England, but was very common in the whole of Europe during the renaissance. But whereas in the early 17th century consort music gradually disappeared in countries like Italy and France to make way for music for melody instruments and basso continuo, it remained popular in England until the end of that century. Even Purcell wrote some music for consort.

One of the forms of consort music was the so-called fantasia-suite, a modern term - not used in the 17th century - for a piece beginning with a fantasia, followed by an almain and a galliard. John Coprario and William Lawes are two of the main composers of music for consort, and both wrote a number of these fantasia-suites.

Coprario's real name was John Cooper (or Cowper) but he himself italianised his name for an unknown reason. It is suggested it could have been under the influence of a visit to Italy, which is not impossible, but not documented. Several authors state he taught the viola da gamba to the Prince of Wales, son of James I and the later King Charles I, but this is difficult to prove. What is certain, though, is that Charles appointed him as 'composer-in-ordinary' in 1625, when he ascended the throne. William Lawes was one of Coprario's pupils, and he also played an important role at the court of Charles I. Lawes died in 1645 during the Civil War, which was a great shock for King Charles, who honoured him with the title 'Father of Musick'.

There are two kinds of consort: the 'whole' consort, consisting of instruments of one family, specifically viols or recorders, and the 'mixed' consort - sometimes referred to as 'broken' consort - which consists of members of different families. The fantasia-suites played here were all written for violin, bass viol and organ. In the booklet Saskia Coolen states: "The instrumental ensemble used for this recording is combination of gamba and recorder with either organ or harpsichord". But she fails to explain why the music played here can be performed by a 'broken consort'. Considering the popularity of the recorder and of recorder consorts in England in the 17th century, some music for viol consort certainly can be played by such an ensemble - as several recordings demonstrate - but to play these fantasia-suites with instruments of different families is very questionable.

One of the problems is the balance within the ensemble. In consort music all voices are treated on equal terms. Considering the contrapuntal texture of the fantasia-suites the blending of the instruments is essential. And that is what is lacking here. In the fantasia-suites by Coprario the recorder tends to dominate and overshadow the organ and the bass viol, in particular when it is playing in its highest register. I have never heard that in performances with a violin. At the other end of the spectrum the opposite is happening. In Coprario's pieces the organ often doubles one of the other voices. When the upper voice of the organ plays the same line as the recorder in its lower register, the two parts are hardly distinguishable. After all, the sound of the recorder and the organ are very close anyway, as they are both wind instruments. There are no problems in this respect, when a violin is used: organ and violin blend well, but never lose their individual character.

Balance is also the problem in the fantasia-suites by Lawes. In the Fantasia-suite in g minor the organ part is played on the harpsichord. It can never blend with the other instruments as much as the organ. Besides, long-held notes in the keyboard part have to be broken up in shorter notes, for instance through arpeggios. This undermines the contrapuntal texture of these pieces, and in addition the harpsichord dominates both recorder and bass viol. Even more bizarre is the Fantasia-suite in D: in the almain the organ is used, in the galliard the harpsichord, and in the opening fantasia they are used both simultaneously. How Patrick Ayrton has done that is a mystery to me: the booklet doesn't indicate the use of a clavi-organum, but how someone can play organ and harpsichord at the same time I don't understand. I assume the recording technique has given a helping hand here. Anyhow, the reasons escape me, and the result is totally unconvincing.

The other part of this disc is devoted to divisions, another very popular musical form, as the collections this music comes from demonstrate. The pieces by George Tollett - about whom nothing is known - and David Mell, member of the court violin band since 1620, are from The Division Violin which was published by John Playford in 1684. One of the main composers of divisions was Christopher Simpson, who also published a treatise on the subject: The Division-Viol (1667), from which the piece on this disc is taken. Division is a technique of improvised variation in which the notes of a ground are divided into shorter ones. This genre was especially popular in the second half of the 17th century. The three pieces of this kind are well played, but there is something to question here too: the basso continuo part of the last item on the programme, David Mell's John come kiss me now, is played with the buff stop of the harpsichord. I find this rather odd, even though the performance is one of the best on this disc. Also from a historical point of view: did English harpsichords or foreign instruments used in England have a buff stop, and was it used to play the basso continuo?

In addition to the fantasia-suites and the divisions a couple of keyboard pieces are played, by Aston and an anonymous master respectively - well played, but chronologically a bit out of step with the rest of the programme. Another odd one out is the set of three variations on Daphne, as it is not English but from a Dutch manuscript. It is written for keyboard, but played here with harpsichord and recorder, which is perfectly legitimate.

For the most part this recording is unsatisfactory because of the use of a recorder and a harpsichord in repertoire which is not very suitable for this combination of instruments. This way the artists don't do the music or themselves any justice. The divisions are done pretty well, but they can't save this disc as a whole.

Johan van Veen ( 2009)

Relevant links:

Saskia Coolen

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