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Concert reviews

John DOWLAND & Anthony HOLBORNE: Consort music
Musicall Humors
concert: Feb 26, 2015, Utrecht, Geertekerk

Julien Léonard, alto viol; Nick Milne, alto viol, tenor viol; Myriam Rignol, tenor viol; Lucile Boulanger, Josh Cheatham, bass viol; Thomas Dunford, lute; François Guerrier, harpsichord, organ

Music for a consort of instruments was common and popular across Europe in the 16th and the early 17th centuries. It was not an English specialty as one probably is inclined to think, considering the fact that English repertoire dominates in concerts and recordings of consort music. However, that association is not unjustified, if we look at the size and the quality of the repertoire which was produced in England during about 150 years. Such music was still written by English composers at a time the genre of consort music had become obsolete elsewhere. That has everything to do with the fact that the style of the renaissance - known as the stile antico - survived in England longer than anywhere else. Even Henry Purcell (1659-1695) still composed consort music.

The heyday of the genre were the decades around 1600, generally considered a 'golden era' in English music history. It was under the rule of Elizabeth I and James I that a large amount of consort music was written, for instance by John Dowland and Anthony Holborne . They were the key figures in the concert by the ensemble Musicall Humors which gave a series of six concerts in the Netherlands and Belgium. The name of the ensemble is well chosen, because many pieces by English composers aimed at expressing human 'humors'. The word 'humor' (humour) has to be understood in its classical meaning: a human state of mind. The term derives from the humoral medicine of the ancient Greeks, which taught that the balance of fluids in the human body, known as humours (Latin: humor, "body fluid"), controlled human health and emotion. The seemingly dominating humour was melancholy. But is questionable whether that was real or just a kind of fashion. Anyway, this state of mind is reflected in many compositions by English composers in the time of Dowland. He himself is especially associated with this melancholy, especially through his collection of consort pieces which was published under the title of Lachrimae. The ensemble had not included some of these in their programme, and that was just as well as these are very well-known and tend to give a rather one-sided picture of his oeuvre. We heard some much more uplifting pieces, although melancholy was certainly represented. One of the interesting aspects of the programme was that the ensemble played several pieces which are also - and probably better - known as songs or lute pieces. An example of the former is Captain Digorie Piper his Galliard which is an arrangement of the song If my complaints could passions move, also a specimen of the melancholic side of Dowland. Some pieces were played at high speed, sometimes at the cost of a clear articulation.

Anthony Holborne was the main composer of instrumental music in his time. He published the first collection of instrumental works in England in 1599, and from this collection the pieces in the programme were taken. There is often a kind of one-sidedness in the treatment of his output as well. Mostly his more exuberant and playful pieces receive all the attention, and one could think that melancholy is playing only a marginal role in his oeuvre. The programme of Musicall Humors proved otherwise. Titles such as The teares of the muses and The image of melancholy speak for themselves. The latter is a magnificent piece, just like Lullaby, both played in the last section of the concert. Before we heard one of Dowland's best-known and most beautiful pieces, The frog galliard, derived from the song Now o now I needs must part. The more extroverted pieces were very well played, but I enjoyed the more melancholic pieces most, not just because of their qualities but also because here the players showed their skills to maximum effect. Anyone of them is of equal standard, and the ensemble was excellent. They produced a gorgeous sound, and the musical lines were beautifully shaped.

I discovered English consort music about 40 years ago, and listening to this concert I realised how much has changed since in regard to performance practice. At that time this repertoire was almost exclusively played by British ensembles. They produced a somewhat thin sound and there was little dynamic shading. How different are things today as Musicall Humors impressively showed. The players fully master their instruments, seem to feel completely at home at this repertoire and are not afraid to create dynamic contrasts and add ornamentation. In these performances this repertoire turns out to be captivating and often even outright exciting.

It was a shame that the programme in the first part was a bit different from what was published in the programme sheet. (That is the reason a list of pieces is omitted in the header of this review.) That should have been announced. However, it didn't spoil my enjoyment. I hope the ensemble will be back in one of the next seasons, or maybe the early music festival of 2015 which is devoted to music from England.

Johan van Veen (© 2015)

Concert reviews