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CD reviews

"Dancing in the Isles"

Musica Pacifica

rec: August 28 - 31, 2008, Mountain View, CA, Finn Center (Community School of Music and Arts, Tateuchi Hall)
Solimar - 101 ( 2010) (74'58")
Liner-notes: E

anon: Cupararee or Graysin; The Temple Anticke; William BYRD (c1543-1623): La Volta; Giles FARNABY (c1563-1640): Lord Zouches Masque; Robert JOHNSON (c1583-1633): Fairey Masque; Matthew LOCKE (1621/22-1677): Suite No 4 in C [2]; Nicola MATTEIS (?-1714): Ayres in G [bk III] [3]; Turlough O'CAROLAN (1670-1738): Bridget Cruise (arr Elizabeth Blumenstock); Planxty Toby Peyton (arr. Elizabeth Blumenstock); James OSWALD (1710-1769): A Sonata of Scots Tunes [4]; Henry PURCELL (1659-1695): Three Parts upon a Ground (Z 731); trad: Irish Lamentation (arr. Musica Pacifica) [1]; Jack's Maggot (arr. Musica Pacifica) [1]; Johnnie Faa (arr. Elizabeth Blumenstock); Kid of the Mountain (arr. Elizabeth Blumenstock); Larry O'Gaff (arr. Elizabeth Blumenstock); Newcastle (arr. Musica Pacifica) [1]; Rufty Tufty (arr. Musica Pacifica) [1]; Scotch Cap (arr. Musica Pacifica) [1]; The Gordon/My Lame Leg (arr. Elizabeth Blumenstock); The Mountain Rose (arr. Elizabeth Blumenstock); Tullymet Hall/Lord Saltoun (arr. Elizabeth Blumenstock); Francesco VERACINI (1690-1768): Sonata for violin and bc in A, op. 2,9 (Scozzese) [5]

Sources: [1] John Playford (ed), The English Dancing Master, 1651; [2] Matthew Locke, The Broken Consort Part 1, 1661; [3] Nicola Matteis, Ayres Preludes, Fuges, Allmands, Sarabands, Courants, Gigues, Fancies, Divisions ..., 3rd and 4th Parts, 1685; [4] James Oswald, A Curious Collection of Scots Tunes, 1740; [5] Francesco Maria Veracini, Sonate accademiche, op. 2, 1744

Judith Linsenberg, recorders, whistle; Elizabeth Blumenstock, Robert Mealy, violin; David Morris, cello, viola da gamba; Charles Weaver, theorbo, guitar; Charles Sherman, harpsichord; Peter Maund, percussion

Many books have been written about the history of Western music. They usually tell only a part of the story: the music as written down by composers through the ages - what we today call 'art music'. The music which was mostly handed over orally or through a process of listening and imitating remains largely under the radar, unless it was picked up by composers and incorporated into their own compositions.

The whole issue of the relationship between 'art music' and 'traditional' or 'folk music' is interesting, in many ways reflecting the relationship between the various classes in past societies. One the one hand the upper classes were fascinated by the simplicity and the directness of the common people, probably also envious that they could afford to do things in public they themselves could only do in secret. On the other hand they tried to distance themselves from the lower classes. One can see this dichotomy reflected in paintings with pictures from the life of common people. They display their pleasures with lust for detail, but they also are a warning to the high-class owners: "You don't want to be like them, do you?"

It is this dichotomy which could also play a role in musical matters. What all classes had in common was that they liked to dance to pass the time, even though their dances were very different. But in both echelons of society it resulted in a large repertoire of dance music. This disc of the American ensemble Musica Pacifica brings dance music from the British Isles as performed during the 17th and 18th centuries. One of the features of the programme is that it demonstrated how popular tunes - the music of 'the people' - found its way into the music of the aristocracy and at the court. It turned up in the masque, a sequence of dances, songs and spoken texts, and one of the main entertainments of the higher classes. A further indication of the attraction of popular dance tunes was the printing of some of them in collections like The English Dancing Master by John Playford. This way they could also be played by members of the higher echelons of society themselves, in particular during the ruling of Oliver Cromwell, when public entertainment was largely forbidden and people had to entertain themselves at home.

In the 18th century another element came to the fore: the fascination for exotic cultures. The history of British music of the 17th and 18th centuries is largely dominated by England. The main composers were from England or immigrants from the continent, in particular Italy and Germany. But the music-loving public became increasingly interested in the tunes from Scotland and Ireland. In particular Scotch tunes enjoyed great popularity, and several composers responded by incorporating Scotch tunes into their compositions. One example is the famous Italian violinist Francesco Maria Veracini, who stayed several years in London in the 1730s and played a major role in the musical scene. In his Sonata in A, op. 2,9 he included a movement, called Scozzese, "to the great disgust of Charles Burney", as Robert Mealy writes in his liner-notes. The interest in - and probably at the same time dislike of - the cultures of Scotland and Ireland found their counterpart in the fascination with everything 'Turkish' and 'Indian' on the continent, especially in France.

Dance music as it has come down to us wasn't always meant to dance. It is highly unlikely the Suite No 4 in C by Matthew Locke was played as true dance music. It is rather one of the many compositions which contains stylised dances, meant as independent instrumental music. The Ayres in G by Nicola Matteis includes a sarabanda facile and concludes with a burlesca, but this again was music to perform and to listen to - Matteis was a virtuosic and much-admired violinist - rather than to dance. The Sonata in D by James Oswald is an interesting example of the connection between traditional and 'art music'. Oswald was one of the very few Scottish composers in England, who ended his career as court composer to George III. "His Sonata is a characteristic hybrid in which Scots folk tunes are provided with a fashionable Corellian bass line, and pieces of different character are juxtaposed to form a delightful entertainment, more for the salon than for the dance hall" (Robert Mealy).

One could say that in Oswald's sonata we see traditional music through 'art music' glasses. And in a way that is perhaps how we hear traditional music of the past anyway. I wonder whether today's interpreters in the field of early music are really able to grasp the true character of the traditional music. Improvisation played an important role: most music wasn't written down and many performers of traditional music in the 17th century were probably not even able to read or write music. This is reflected in the performances of Musica Pacifica. They have added parts of their own, and treated the material in an improvisatorial way. As far as I can tell they have done so very well, and apparently decided to stick to the style of the time. So fortunately we don't hear any attempts to pepper the music with contemporary antics. The music recorded by Musica Pacifica - whether traditional or 'art music' - is as good and as entertaining as it is.

Robert Mealy's elaborate liner-notes are very interesting. Unfortunately the issue of scoring is not discussed. I wondered, for instance, whether it is appropriate to use a harpsichord in the English court dances which open this disc. Did performers of traditional music use such a distinguished instrument? Did they have it at all - weren't they not too expensive? I also question the use of a recorder in Matteis' Ayres in G, as he was a violinist and his music largely reflect his own playing.

Doubtless this is a most interesting disc which sheds light on an intriguing subject. The playing is first-rate: full of bounce, stylish and technically immaculate.

Johan van Veen ( 2011)

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