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"Insane Harmony - English Music 1650 - 1700"

Musica Alta Ripa

rec: Jan 29 - 31, 2016, Abtei Marienmünster (D), Konzerthaus
MDG - 309 1961-2 (© 2016) (67'34")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover & track-list

William LAWES (1602-1645): Suite in d minorbcfh; Matthew LOCKE (1621/22-1677): Suite in d minor/majorbcfg [2]; Suite in e minorafh [1]; Henry PURCELL (1659-1695): Chacony in g minor (Z 730)bcdfh; Fantazia on a ground in D (Z 731)bcdfg; Pavan in g minor (Z 752)bcdfh; Suite a 4 in G (Z 770)abcefg; Thomas TOMKINS (1572-1656): Voluntary in Cg; Voluntary in a minorg; William WILLIAMS (1675-1701): Sonata in a minorabfg [3]

[1] Matthew Locke, For Several Friends, [n.d.] [2] Matthew Locke, The Broken Consort Part 2, 1661/62?; [3] William Williams, 6 Sonatas in 3 Parts, 1700

Danya Segal, recordera; Anne Röhrigb, Ulla Bundiesc, violin; Friederike Kremers, violind, violae; Albert Brüggen, cellof; Bernward Lohr, harpsichordg, organh

The title of this disc refers to what is considered one of the main features of English music of the 16th and early 17th centuries: the very individual and often unconventional use of harmony. In many motets, anthems and consort music we find so-called 'false relations' and that makes this repertoire easily recognizable as 'typically English'. Such treatment of harmony is often associated with the baroque period which started in Italy shortly after 1600. But in England it is very much part of the stile antico which dominated the musical landscape until the mid-17th century.

The subtitle suggests that the programme includes music from the second half of the 17th century. That is a little imprecise. William Lawes died in 1645 and considering that Thomas Tomkins died in 1656 it is quite possible that the two keyboard Voluntaries date from before 1650. The pieces by Matthew Locke were never printed and that makes it virtually impossible to date them. It also has to be said that the selection of pieces is not very imaginative: the only little-known composer is William Williams. Instead of some specimens of consort music the ensemble could have tried to find lesser-known stuff.

The performers are quite liberal in their treatment of the scoring as indicated by the composers, even though the poor documentation sometimes makes it a little difficult to identify the pieces and what the original scoring was. Lawes' Suite in d minor is probably from the set of Fantasia-suites which Gordon Dodd numbered 138 to 161. According to the track-list this piece is for two violins, cello and organ. The use of a cello is highly questionable; the first cello made in England dates from 1672. It is possible that the cello was known in England before that but it must have been extremely rare.

The Suite in e minor by Matthew Locke is one of the twelve suites For Several Friends which are scored for a treble viol or violin, a bass viol and bc; the latter is ad libitum. Here the treble part is played on the recorder, with again the cello in the basso continuo. However, despite the addition of a basso continuo part this suite is still strongly rooted in the tradition of consort music, and that doesn't come off in this scoring. I find the combination of recorder and cello here rather unsatisfying. The Suite in d minor/major is the third from the second part of the Broken Consort and is for two violins or treble viols, bass viol and bc. The part for a string bass is not specifically mentioned in the track-list. Again the use of a cello is questionable.

With Henry Purcell we are firmly in the second half of the 17th century. In his time the baroque style had established itself. This was partly due to the Restoration: King Charles II, who had lived for some time in exile in France, had become acquainted with what was going on at the continent and didn't like the traditional consort music which was still in vogue in England. In addition, several musicians from the continent had settled in England and introduced new styles of violin playing and instruments like the oboe and the baroque version of the recorder. Purcell's instrumental music shows the influence of French and Italian music. However, his Fantazia on a ground in D and the Chacony in g minor bear witness to the great popularity of music based on a ground bass, a typically English tradition. These pieces as well as the Pavan in g minor are for the rather unusual scoring of three violins and bc. The Suite in G is in four parts and scored for strings. I don't see the reason for the participation of a recorder but that seems not a problem here.

That is probably different in what is the least-known piece in the programme: the Sonata in a minor by William Williams. From 1695 until his early death in 1701 he was a member of the royal band. In 1700 he published a set of six trio sonatas for two treble instruments and bc. Three of them are for two recorders and three for two violins, but when he invited subscriptions he stated that "those for the Flutes being writ three notes lower, will go on the Violins, and those for the Violins being rais'd will go on the Flutes, which will make six for each instrument". This suggests that he had performances with two similar instruments in mind. Here the sonata is performed with recorder and violin. I have heard some of these sonatas with two recorders, which I found more satisfying.

The playing is mostly alright, although I wonder whether the performers really feel at home in this repertoire which is so different from what they usually play. In Matthew Locke's Suite in d minor/major, for instance, there are quite strong dynamic accents. Usually I like that, but not here; I feel that it just doesn't fit Locke's music, especially as it is closer to renaissance than to baroque music. This is one reason why I often feel unsatisfied with continental, and especially German, ensembles playing English 17th-century repertoire.

Over the years I have heard most of Musica Alta Ripa's recordings and I have always liked them; it is a very good ensemble. However, here they seem to have missed the mark a little.

Johan van Veen (© 2017)

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