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"Crystal tears"

Andreas Scholl, altoa; Julian Behr, luteb; Concerto di Violec
rec: Oct 2007, Grimisuat (Sion), Fondation Tibor Varga
Harmonia mundi - HMC 901993 (© 2008) (79'32")

anon: O Death, rock me asleepac; John BENNET (fl 1599-1614): Venus' birds whose mournful tunesabc; William BYRD ((1543-1623): Though Amaryllis dance in greenac [1]; John DOWLAND (1563-1626): A Fancyb; Come heavy sleepabc [2]; From silent nightabc [4]; Go crystal tearsac [1]; Go nightly caresabc [4]; Now, o now, needs must partabc [2]; Semper Dowland semper dolensb; (arr anon) Sorrow, comeabc; The Lady Rich her galliardb; Time stands stillab [3]; Alfonso FERRABOSCO II (c1578-1628): Four-note pavanac; Robert JOHNSON (1583-1633): Care-charming sleepab; Full fathom fiveab; Have you seen the bright lily grow?ab; Patrick MANDO (fl c1600): Like as the dayac; Richard MICO (c1590-1661): Fantasia No 13c; John WARD (1571-1638): Fantasia a 6 No 3c; Fantasia a 6 No 4c

(Sources: [1] Byrd, Psalmes, Sonets and Songs, 1588; [2] Dowland, The Firste Booke of Songes or Ayres of Fowre Partes, 1597; [3] The Third and Last Booke of Songs or Aires, 1603; [4] A Pilgrimes Solace, 1612)

[CdV] Brian Franklin, treble viol; Brigitte Gasser, tenor viol; Rebeka Rusó, bass viol; Arno Jochem, great bass viol

In the decades around 1600 several genres of music were particularly popular in England: the madrigal, the consort song, the lute song and music for viol consort. These was no strict separation between these genres: many songs which today are performed with voice and lute were scored in a way which allowed various kinds of performances, according to the wishes and the possibilities of the purchasers of collections of songs: members of the elite which performed them at their homes. Songs were mostly set in four parts, and could be sung by one voice either with a lute - or other plucked instruments, for instance the orpharion - or with a consort of viols. It was also possible to perform the four parts vocally, with or without viols to support the voices. It is therefore not suprising that songs which are sung with lute accompaniment on one recording are performed by voice and a consort of viols or with a four-part vocal ensemble on another.

Most texts are anonymous, and could be either secular or sacred, which isn't always clearly discernible. In these pieces the poems were certainly not less important than the music as one may gather from the foreword of John Dowland's First Booke of Songes of 1597 where he states that the voice and the instrument express "some worthy sentence or excellent Poem". And although the consort song is a typically English phenomenon, it was influenced by the growing acquaintance and appreciation of the music from Italy, in particular the madrigal with its use of chromaticism and dissonances in the interest of expressing the text.

There can be no doubt that this disc contains some splendid music, and proves that, as beautiful as Dowland's compositions may be, there were other composers who were equally able to write some moving and highly expressive pieces. Among them are some who are hardly known, like Richard Mico and Patrick Mando. The programme has been intelligently put together, with a nice variety between vocal and instrumental items, and between songs with lute and with viols respectively. As Andreas Scholl is one of the world's leading male altos one expects a high-class performance. But I am sorry to say that - although some items have been nicely done - this recording has too many deficiencies to make it really recommendable.

First of all I find it disappointing that no attempt has been made to use a pronunciation which is historically plausible. I have no idea what has been the idea behind the way the texts are pronounced, but it seems to lack any consistency. Sometimes the "r" is pronounced as it is today in American English, then a rolling "r" is used. In one instance even the "a" is pronunciated the American way, but only once.

Then the tempo: sometimes it is really very slow. The very first song, Go crystal tears by Dowland, is a good example: I was immediately thinking of Dowland's song Time stands still, which is performed later in the programme. Here time also seems to stand still. As a result the long-held notes are held really long, and that leads too a slight tremolo in Scholl's voice - not just here, but also elsewhere. And I don't see the point of tampering with the tempo: the slowing down in the third stanza of Byrd's Though Amaryllis dance in green is so artificial and unnecessary that it really spoils the song. The same happens in the refrain of Robert Johnson's Full fathom five, where the attempt to express the sound of the death bells fails to convince. There are other moments too where attempts to sing expressively become caricatural. The whistling in the refrain of John Bennet's Venus' birds whose mournful tunes is really not called for and does nothing to enhance the expression of this song.

It is not just the pronunciation which is unhistorical, some of the playing of the viol consort is too. That concerns especially the use of pizzicato which wasn't used in consort music at the time. In the second stanza of Dowland's Now, O now, I needs must part the consort plays the first two lines pizzicato, in the next two the upper line is bowed whereas the other parts are again played pizzicato, and then the last four lines all the players are using pizzicato again. The same kind of thing happens in Bennet's song I already have referred to. Why the players are doing this is a mystery to me.

Some other points to end with. Why is the refrain in Dowland's Now, O now, I needs must part only sung in the first and third stanza, and not in the second? The balance between the voice and the viols isn't always good; sometimes Andreas Scholl sings too loud. A special case is Alfonso Ferrabosco's wonderful Four-note pavan. "It was originally a stylised instrumental dance form for consort of viols, in which the top line tirelessly repeats a motif made up of just four notes, transposed to various pitches and played in different rhythms, over a dense contrapuntal texture. Ferrabosco's friend the playwright Ben Jonson set this motif to a religious text, thus turning an instrumental piece into a 'Hymn to God the Father' (...)", Martin Kirnbauer writes in the programme notes. The origin of this piece as a composition for viol consort points into the direction of a performance in which all parts are integrated. But here Scholl's voice is much too prominent, turning this piece into a work for solo voice and accompaniment - a clear misrepresentation of the composer's intentions.

In short, this is an interesting and musicaly captivating programme which is spoilt by mannered singing and a lack of respect for the intentions of the composers.

Johan van Veen (© 2008)

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