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The Division Flute

Emma Murphy, recorder; William Lyons, recorder, dulcian; Emilia Benjamin, viola da gamba; Richard Campbell, viola da gamba, guitar; David Miller, theorbo, guitar; Steven Devine, harpsichord

rec: Jan 29, Feb 5 & Oct 26, 2006, Pinewood Studios (Phoenix Sound) (UK)
Signum Classics - SIGCD125 ( 2008) (57'17")

[Part 1] A Division on a Ground; A Division on a Ground by Mr Banister; A Division on a Ground by Mr Eccles; A Division on a Ground by Mr Finger; Faronells Ground; Green sleeves to a Ground; Johney Cock thy Beavor; Paul's Steeple, a division on a Ground; Old Simon the King; Reading's Ground; Tollet's Ground
[Part 2] A Division on a Ground; A Division on a Ground; A Division to a Ground by Mr Solomon Eccles; A Ground by Mr Finger; A Ground by Mr Solomon Eccles; An Italian Ground

The genre this disc is devoted to was very popular in England from the 16th to the early decades of the 18th century. It was by no means an exclusively English genre. The principle of writing variations on a certain melody over a basso ostinato - a repeated bass pattern - developed simultaneously and largely independently in Italy, Spain and England during the 16th century. It was the subject of treatises, the most famous of which is Trattado de glosas (1553) by the Spanish viol virtuoso Diego Ortiz.

In England this genre remained popular well into the 18th century. This is reflected by publications like Christopher Simpson's The Division Viol or the Art of Playing Ex tempore upon a Ground (1659) and The Division Violin, printed in 1684 by Playford. The latter was followed by further editions until the 1730s. The music on this disc comes from another collection, printed in two volumes from 1706 to 1708 by John Walsh, The Division Flute. It not only bears testimony to the continuing popularity of the genre, but also of the recorder. Then this was the instrument these pieces were set for. In a time when elsewhere - in France, Germany and Italy - the recorder was overshadowed by the transverse flute, it still enjoyed great popularity in England.

Perhaps one would think that a whole disc of this kind of music is a bit too much of the same, but there is no need for fear. What is impressive is how much variety there is within this single genre. There are several reasons for this. The first is that there is a lot of difference between the various grounds: the romanesca, the folia, the passacaglia, the passamezzo and the bergamasca. Secondly the thematic material composers used also strongly varies. Pieces based on folk tunes or ballads appear alongside more sophisticated pieces by composers who were equally at home in genres like the concerto and the sonata, such as the Moravian-born Gottfried (or Godfrey) Finger.

But one should not listen to this disc in expectation of deep expression, daring harmony or dramatic contrasts. This music was meant to entertain the player(s). That doesn't mean this is simple music: some of the variations are very virtuosic, and this gives some indication of the technical skills of the recorder players in England around 1700. Henry Purcell - himself a composer of divisions on a ground - may have written that "Composing upon a Ground is a very easie thing to do", it certainly doesn't sound like that.

The music isn't just entertaining for the musicians, though, the listeners also should enjoy it. This isn't only because of the quality of the repertoire, but also because of the interpretations. The musicians give very fine performances, with technical precision and great flamboyance and a good sense for the rythmic pulse. There is also a nice variety in the use of instruments: Emma Murphy plays two different recorders - soprano and alto - and the basso continuo is realised with various combinations of theorbo, guitar, viola da gamba and harpsichord.

This disc brings just under an hour of entertainment of the highest order. Reason enough to strongly recommend it.

Johan van Veen ( 2009)

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