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"Grounds for Pleasure - Keyboard Music from Seventeenth Century England"

Colin Booth, harpsichord

rec: Feb 12 - 14, 2014, Godney (Somerset), Village Hall
Soundboard - SBCD214 (66'52")
Liner-notes: E
Cover & track-list

anon: My Lady Carey's Dompe; John BLOW (1649-1708): Ground in Gamut Flatt; Mortlack's Ground; Suite in d minor; William BYRD (1543-1623): A Grounde; My Lady Nevel's Grownde; William CROFT (1678-1727): Suite in A; Orlando GIBBONS (1583-1625): Fantasia; Ground; Italian Ground; Pavan Lord Salisbury; William INGLOT (1554-1621): The Leaves Bee Greene; Henry PURCELL (1659-1695): A Ground in Gamut (Z 645); A New Ground (Z T682); Chacone (Z T680); Ground in d minor (Z D222); Hornpipe (Z T683); Thomas TOMKINS (1572-1656): A Short Verse; Grounde

The word ground often crops up in programmes of English music of the 16th and 17th centuries. New Grove defines it thus: "A melody, usually in the bass and hence often called a ground bass (basso ostinato in Italian), recurring many times in succession, accompanied by continuous variation in the upper parts." It could appear in various forms, with various titles, and was one of the most popular genres across Europe. At first blush the repetition of the same bass scheme may seem not very interesting, but in fact many compositions based on a ground belong among the most exciting. Especially Italian composers knew how to use a basso ostinato for brilliant pieces with increasingly virtuosic variations. In France it was especially the chaconne which stirred the imagination of composers. Under the ancien régime hardly an opera was written which did not include a chaconne, mostly in the last act towards the end.

Grounds could be written for almost any instrument or ensemble of instruments. As far as England is concerned, this programme is devoted to keyboard music, but some of the most famous and brilliant grounds were composed for the viola da gamba (especially by Christopher Simpson), the recorder and the human voice. Some specimens of the latter category are from the pen of Henry Purcell, such as his 'evergreen' Music for a while. He is also represented in this programme of grounds by English composers. That makes this disc all the more attractive as his keyboard works are not part of the standard repertoire of harpsichordists. The music of his contemporaries fares even worse: not that many of the keyboard works by the likes of Blow and Croft are available on disc, let alone played in harpsichord recitals. The Ground from Croft's Suite in A is a particularly nice piece which I had never heard before.

The programme opens with the anonymous My Lady Carey's Dompe which has to be considered one of the earliest grounds composed in England. It is based on a simple two-note motif. Next follows a brilliant piece by William Byrd, one of the greatest keyboard composers of his time. He also ends the programme, and the two grounds Colin Booth has chosen are very different in character. This just confirms that the form of the ground leaves much room for variety.

Basically any formula could be used as a ground. The Leaves Bee Greene by William Inglot attests to that: the tune mostly appears in the bass. In his liner-notes Colin Booth points out that the genre of the ground is not always clearly discernible from a set of variations. That also goes for Orlando Gibbons' Italian Ground. The title refers to a tune better known as More Palatino and used by many composers for variations, sometimes with different titles.

The programme includes various pieces by Purcell, and these are mostly arrangements of theatre music in which he often made use of grounds. Other composers of his time included a ground in some of their suites, such as Blow and Croft. By including the other movements from those suites and several independent pieces which don't belong to the genre Booth puts the ground in its historical context. A Short Verse by Tomkins and the magnificent Pavan Lord Salisbury by Gibbons are two of the latter. In the Pavan Booth has added variations in the composer's style.

This is just one of the creative elements in his performances. Another is the choice of harpsichord. It is an original French instrument, signed Nicholas Celini Narboniensis 1661 which combines features of Italian and early French instruments. It has two manuals. "The lower keyboard plays one or both of two sets of strings at normal pitch. (...) The upper keyboard plays a solo register pitched an octave higher. There is no possibility of any kind of coupler mechanism". Booth refers here to the 'mother and child' virginals which were popular in the Low Countries around 1600. It seems that this instrument, with its 'old-fashioned' streaks, is very well suited to the repertoire played here. The sound is unusual but very intriguing and captivating. Its robustness - which points in the direction of Italian harpsichord-making - makes a piece like Gibbons's Pavan Lord Salisbury even more impressive.

That is also due to Colin Booth's outstanding performances. Some pieces are different from how I have heard them before but are certainly convincing. This disc is also a model of intelligent and sensible programming. The liner-notes are informative and helpful to put the music into perspective. The same goes for the extensive notes about the harpsichord, which are accompanied by a beautiful picture.

For harpsichord lovers this is a disc not to be missed.

Johan van Veen (© 2015)

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