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"Mistress Elizabeth Davenant, her Songes"

Rebecca Ockenden, sopranoa, recitationb; Sofie Vanden Eynde, lutec

rec: Jan 2010, Sint-Truiden, Keizerzaal
Ramée - RAM 1101 (© 2011) (68'36")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: D/F
Cover & track-list

anon: anon: Cease o cease this hum of greevingac; Cloris sighd and sang and weptac; Dropp drop goulden showrsac; Eyes gaze no moreac; Hear my prayer O Godac; I prithee leave love me no moreac; If when I dyeac; Musicke thou soule of heavenac; My strength hath faildac; Shall I weepe or shall I singe?ac; Sleepe sleep though greife torment thy bodyac; Whether away my sweetest deerestac; Thomas CAMPION (1567-1620): Come you prettie false eyd wantonac; Robert JOHNSON (1583-1633): Almainc; Care charming sleepeac; Carman's Whistlec; Galliardc; Galliard (My Lady Mildemays Delight)c; Have you seene the white lilly growac; Pavanc; Henry LAWES (1595-1662): Like to the damaske roseac; Woodes, rocks & mountainesac; John WILSON (1595-1674): Go happy hartac
[Mary WROTH (c1587-c1651): Pamphilia to Amphilantus (Good now bee still; How well poore hart; When nights black mantle)b]

Women didn't play a major role in music life before the 19th century. Only very few female composers are known to us, and as they were not supposed to sing in church, there wasn't much employment as performers either. Only in opera they were participating from the early 17th century on. There are exceptions, both in the field of composing and performing of religious music, for instance in women convents.

There were other ways for them to become involved in music, though. Some women inspired composers to write songs or to dedicate compositions or collections of pieces to them, like Lady Penelope Rich. There are also collections of music, preserved in manuscript, which bear the name of the lady, for whom the collection was put together, like Susanne van Soldt . Not very well-known but most interesting is the collection of songs from which Rebecca Ockenden and Sofie Vanden Eynde made a selection for this disc.

Elizabeth Davenant was a lady who lived in Oxford, and that is also where the manuscript has been preserved, in the Christ Church library. She was from a family of merchant-class origins. Her father was chief vintner and also became Mayor of Oxford. He owned the Crown Tavern which was visited by William Shakespeare on his way between London and Stratford. Elizabeth's brother William would become a playwright of some reputation. The fact that this collection of songs was put together for her is an indication that she must have enjoyed a very good education herself. It is not known which hand wrote down the music in the manuscript. In his liner-notes Anthony Rooley writes that "the hand suggests a serious scribe, even a professional. We cannot know the extent to which Elizabeth Davenant was involved with the choice: was it written by her music tutor, or written to order? Or was she a rare example of a woman with developed calligraphic skills?"

A number of songs are anonymous, and among the composers appearing in the collection are names of some of the most famous masters of song-writing of the time: Thomas Campion - of the same generation as John Dowland -, Robert Johnson and Henry Lawes. This is explains the various styles which are represented in the collection. Some are of a rather theatrical nature, which is reflected by declamatory passages. That is especially the case with the songs of Robert Johnson or those which are attributed to him. The poems are generally of a rather complex nature, which once again gives some idea about Lady Davenant's education.

All songs are secular, with two exceptions. These are performed as the first and last items on this disc. What makes this collection particularly interesting is that all songs are provided with ornamentation, often quite virtuosic, and rather surprising in their reminiscence of the kind of ornamentation in Italian monodies of the time. This suggests that Elizabeth Davenant was a highly accomplished singer, and - assuming these songs were performed in public - audiences must have appreciated this kind of performances. That raises the question - which is not touched by Rooley - whether songs of that time from other sources should be performed the same way.

As a result this disc is highly intriguing: most songs are not well-known, but those which are - for instance Have you seene the white lilly grow, attributed to Robert Johnson - are performed here in a way which is quite different from previous performances. Rebecca Ockenden has the perfect voice for this particular repertoire and deals with the ornamentation admirably. I wonder, though, whether the tempi aren't a bit too slow. Because of that she isn't always able to sing highly ornamented passages in one breath. Her volume is mostly modest; this creates an intimate atmosphere, which suits the sophisticated character of texts and music very well. In addition to the songs Sofie Vanden Eynden plays a number of lute pieces, especially by Robert Johnson, who was a lutenist of great repute. Also included are three sonnets by another educated lady of the time, Lady Mary Wroth, read by Rebecca Ockenden. Disappointing is the modern English pronunciation, and at odds with the original spelling of the texts in the booklet.

All in all, this is a very interesting disc, for historical and musical reasons and also from the perspective of performance practice. The booklet is exemplary, as we are used to from this label.

Johan van Veen (© 2012)

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