musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Music in 17th-century England

[I] "London Calling - A Collection of Ayres, Fantasies and musical Humours"
ABC - Austrian Baroque Company
Dir: Michael Oman
rec: Oct 6 - 9, 2005, St. Florian, Augustiner Chorherrenstift St. Florian
fra bernardo - fb 2001111 (R) (© 2019) (68'29")
Liner-notes: E
Cover & track-list

Andrea FALCONIERI (1586-1656): [Report upon] Canciona dicha la preciosa, echa para Don Enrico Butler [1]; Su Gallarda [1]; George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759): Prélude e Capriccio in g minor (HWV 571); John HILTON (1599-1657): Fancy; 2 Fantasias a 3; Fantazia 1; Fantazia 2; Fantazia 5; Preludio; Nicola MATTEIS (c1650-after 1714): Adagio - Presto [4]; Aria Amorosa [4]; Aria burlesca con molte bizzarrie [3]; Aria tra la maniera Francese, č la Spagnola [2]; Contr'aria [2]; Diverse bizzarrie sopra la Vecchia Sarabanda ň pur Ciaccona [2]; Gavotta [2]; Gavotta con divisioni [4]; Grave [4]; Ground after the Scotch humour [4]; Ground in D la sol re per far la mano [4]; Scaramuccia [2]; Henry PURCELL (1659-1695): The Fairy Queen (Z 629) (The Plaint);

Sources: [1] Andrea Falconieri, Il primo libro di canzone, sinfonie, fantasie, 1650; Nicola Matteis, [2] Ayrs for the violin, The first Part, 1685; [3] Other Ayrs, The Second Part, 1685; [4] Ayres for the violin ..., The Third and Fourth Parts, 1685

Michael Oman, recorder; Amandine Beyer, violin; Christoph Urbanetz, viola da gamba; Balázs Máté, cello; Thomas C. Boysen, theorbo, guitar; Daniel Oman, colascione, guitar; Johannes Hämmerle, harpsichord, organ; Martina Schobersberger, organ: Charlie Fischer, percussion

[II] "In Vain the Am'rous Flute - Songs, grounds & instrumental pieces by Purcell & Co"
Les Goűts-Authentiques
Dir: Jan Devlieger
rec: Nov 2 & Dec 28, 2018 / June 23, 2020, Meigem (B), D'Apostrof
Et'cetera - KTC 1694 (© 2020) (70'17")
Liner-notes: E/D/F/NL; lyrics - no translations
Cover & track-list

anon: Green Sleeves to a Ground; Ground 'Scocca pur'; John BLOW (1649-1708): Chacone in g minor (Kl. 60); Morlake Ground (Kl. 71); William CROFT (1678-1727): Ground in c minor ([Z D221]); Suite No. 4 in c minor (prelude); Giovanni Battista DRAGHI (c1640-1708): Harmony, from Heav'nly Harmony (The soft complaining flute); Gottfried (Godfrey) FINGER (c1655-1730): A Ground; Henry PURCELL (1659-1695): A Ground in Gamut (Z 645); Come, ye sons of art (Z 323) (Strike the viol); Ground in d minor (Z D222); Hail, bright Cecilia (Z 328) (In vain the am'rous flute); The Fairy Queen (Z 629) (If love's a sweet passion; Next, winter is coming slowly, arr for harpsichord; One charming night); The Indian Queen (Z 630) (Why should men quarrel); The Prophetess, or The History of Dioclesian (Z 627) (Since the toils and hazards of war; Two in one upon a ground); Timon of Athens (Z 632) (Hark! How the songsters of the grove); We reap all the pleasures (Z 547) (Symphony for flutes); Welcome to all the pleasures (Z 339) (Here the deities approve)/A new ground in e minor (Z T682); Yorkshire Feast Song (Z 333) (The Bashful Thames); William WILLIAMS (1675-1701): Sonata in immitation of Birds

Ann De Prest, soprano; Nele De Soete, mezzo-soprano; Clint van der Linde, alto; Johanna Lambrechts, recorder; Jan Devlieger, recorder, harpsichord; Adelheid Glatt, viola da gamba; Marjolein Gerets, bassoon; Thomas Langlois, theorbo; Linde Demuynck, Rein Vermeulen, harpsichord

Music was an important part of the daily life of the higher echelons of society in England during the 17th century. Samuel Pepys, in his diary, mentions that during the Great Fire of London in 1661, when people were trying to rescue their furniture by boat, there was a virginal in almost one in three of them. Music for viol and for recorder, either solo or in consort, was highly popular, and so were all sorts of vocal music, for instance as part of masques, which were regularly performed. Whereas in the first half of the century most music was still rooted in the stile antico, the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 resulted in the introduction of the baroque style that was common at the continent. One of its exponents was the violinist Nicola Matteis, who played the violin in a way English music lovers had never heard before. He is the central figure in the programme which Michael Oman and his ensemble ABC, with the participation of violinist Amandine Beyer, recorded in 2005. It was first released by the label of Austrian radio (which does not exist anymore) and is now reissued by Bernhard Trebuch (former early music editor of ORF) on his own label. The title of this reissue is not original: it was already used by the ensemble Barokksolistene. The programme is a mixture of old and new: John Hilton represents the style that was common before the Restoration. His fantazias - commonly called fancies - are of the kind Charles II, returning from his exile in France, where he had heard the latest music, detested.

This recording is very entertaining and the playing is excellent, but the project as a whole raises quite some issues. The first concerns the way the programme has been put together. The liner-notes refer to the above-mentioned Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) and his contemporary John Evelyn (1620-1706), author and gardener, who both wrote a diary. "The music presented here takes us back to Pepys' time and somewhat later, giving us an idea of what may have been heard during an evening's entertainment in the houses of London's high society". That "somewhat later" seems to refer to Handel, who is represented with a harpsichord piece. However, that does not contribute to the consistency of the programme, as it is stylistically quite different from the rest of the programme. It would have been preferable if some earlier keyboard pieces had been selected. It is also a bit of a mystery why two pieces by Andrea Falconieri were selected. Was his music, printed in 1650 in Naples, known in England? The liner-notes don't mention it.

The second issue is the way the music is performed. Oman and his colleagues play with quite some temperament. I would call their approach 'Italian', because of the choice of tempi and the strong dynamic contrasts. That seems appropriate in the music by Matteis, whose exuberant style of playing was very different from what was common at the time. However, there are reasons to believe that his playing was more relaxed than what is suggested here. I refer here to remarks by Amandine Beyer, of all people, in the liner-notes to her recording of pieces by Matteis (ZigZag Territoires, 2009), quoted here. The music by John Hilton gets the same treatment; here a more restrained approach would certainly be more appropriate. His fantasias are for two treble instruments and bass, and recorders seem the best-suited instruments for these pieces. However, the ensemble includes just one recorder player: Oman himself. The second part is played on the organ, which is rather odd. The line-up in many pieces is questionable anyway. Matteis' music was conceived for the violin. However, the third and fourth volumes of his Ayres for the violin were also available in an edition for recorder - undoubtedly because of the great popularity of this instrument in England - and also with an optional second melody part. This justifies that some of the pieces are played on the recorder or on violin and recorder together. However, there are also pieces from the first and second volumes that are performed this way, which is less convincing. The use of a cello in some items is questionable too: it is unlikely that the cello had established itself in England before the turn of the century. Viola da gamba and bass violin were the main bass string instruments used during the second half of the 17th century. The participation of the organ in Matteis' pieces is also one of the problematic issues here, as is the role of guitar and percussion. The performance of Purcell's 'The Plaint' (from The Fairy Queen) by recorder and violin, in alternation and colla parte, fails to express the emotions of the vocal version.

Some readers may not care about this. As I wrote, this disc is entertaining and there is nothing wrong with the playing. However, historical and stylistic considerations make me rather sceptical about this production.

The central figure on the next disc is Henry Purcell, the main composer in England in the last quarter of the 17th century. The recorder is once again one of the key instruments, alongside the harpsichord. That makes much sense, because Purcell gave the recorder - and often a pair of recorders - important roles in his compositions, especially in his Odes and semi-operas. These are the thread in the programme that Jan Devlieger put together. The title of this disc is taken from Purcell's best-known Ode for St Cecilia's Day, Hail, bright Cecilia.

One may criticise that we get extracts from longer works here, but there is a good historic argument for that: a number of solos from Purcell's vocal works were posthumously published as independent pieces in two volumes under the title of Orpheus Britannicus. These were a token of the great popularity of these pieces and the great esteem in which Purcell was held.

It was John Blow, his teacher, who recognized the young Purcell's genius. He gave up his post as organist of Westminster Abbey in 1679 in favour of his pupil, only to succeed the latter after his early death in 1695. Unfortunately, he has remained in the shadow of Purcell in modern times; only a relatively small part of his oeuvre is available on disc. It is nice that Jan Devlieger included some of his keyboard works, which are of excellent quality and have a character of their own.

Purcell's keyboard music is not that well-known either; that particularly concerns his suites. His best-known pieces are transcriptions of vocal items, such as the Ground in d minor, after 'Crown the altar, deck the shrine' from Celebrate this festival, an Ode for the birthday of Queen Mary II. Another one is A New Ground in e minor, a transcription of the song 'Here the deities approve' from Welcome to all the pleasures, an Ode for St Cecilia's Day of 1683. For this recording the vocal line was mixed with the harpsichord transcription. The practice of making transcriptions inspired Devlieger to do the same: from the semi-opera The Fairy Queen he transcribed 'Next, winter is coming slowly'.

The combination of voice and recorder was common at the time. John Evelyn, the author and gardener mentioned in the liner-notes of the previous disc, is quoted here in the booklet as well, writing in his diary: "There was also a Flute douce now in much request for accompanying the voice". Devlieger, in his liner-notes, states: "The recorder was often introduced to provide a musical depiction of specific events or emotions (...). Purcell often chose to use two recorders and employed them with great invention and a variety of techniques (...)". The recorders were especially used to depict birdsong, not only by Purcell, but across Europe in opera arias and chamber cantatas. They were even used as such in instrumental music, for instance in the Sonata in immitation of Birds, the virtually only well-known piece by William Williams.

The ground cannot fail to appear in a programme with English music of the 17th century. The use of a basso ostinato as the foundation of a composition was immensely popular, and Purcell seems to have liked it very much, as he used it time and again in vocal and instrumental music. No wonder, then, that we get quite a number of grounds here. In Two in One upon a Ground, Purcell combined this technique with that of the canon: the two recorders play in canon above an ostinato bass. The popular tune Greensleeves was also the subject of a piece over such a bass; the anonymous piece included here was first conceived for violin, and later reissued in a version for recorder, taking advantage of the popularity of this instrument, in particular among amateurs.

This disc offers a perfect picture of musical life in late-17th-century England, as it documents the status of Purcell, the recorder and the ground. Some items are performed in arrangements by Jan Devlieger; there could have been more information with regard to the nature of these arrangements. Overall, it is my impression that they all remain within what is historically tenable. The performances are generally very good. The playing of the various instruments and of the ensemble as a whole is excellent; Devlieger is a fine player of both recorder and harpsichord. As far as the singers are concerned: Clint van der Linde is particulary good; he adds some nice ornamentation. Ann De Prest and Nele De Soete are new names to me; I like their voices, and they sing well, but should have reduced their vibrato. As that is not wide, it didn't bother me too much. It certainly does not compromise my appreciation of this disc, which is varied and entertaining. How could a disc with so much Purcell be not entertaining? The man never put a foot wrong in his music.

Johan van Veen (© 2021)

Relevant links:

Austrian Baroque Company
Les Goűts-Authentiques

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