Analekta continue to mine the rich
and relatively untapped treasure trove that is Canadian music
making. Recent years have seen quite an upsurge in the early
music realm of the great white north. This disc is yet another
beautifully played and attractively presented program from the
youthful string ensemble that calls itself Masques. The
addition of soprano Shannon Mercer is splendid icing on a very
lovely and tasty cake.
The period in England
that was book ended by the reigns of Henry VIII and Charles
II was a golden age in English music making. The apex of the
period was the long and colorful era of Elizabeth I (r. 1558-1603),
a time that saw tremendous royal patronage of the arts and a
flourishing of exemplary musicians. Because of her long and
illustrious time on the throne, the entire epoch bears her name.
composers are represented here in this delightful and well-conceived
program. Thomas Campion was not a professional musician at all,
yet such was his skill that he composed and produced a number
of masques (early staged musical productions) and wrote a vast
body of songs for solo voice and sundry instruments. T.S. Eliot
regarded him as one of the greatest lyric poets in English history.
He is represented here by a number of his songs, elegantly and
artfully delivered by soprano Shannon Mercer, whose clear and
unaffected singing is a delight to the ear.
John Jenkins enjoyed
an unusually long and productive life, and consequently left
behind a rather sizeable body of work, mainly for consorts of
viols, the predecessors to the modern string family. His music
is characterized by a certain sweetness of melody and gentleness
of rhythmic motion. To their immense credit, the players here
manage to find the inner pulse of this music, music which is
often allowed to ooze along without much rhythmic drive, thus
rendering it easy on the ear, but prone to be dull. Happily,
these performances hold the listener’s interest from start to
Henry Purcell is
widely regarded as England’s outstanding native contribution
to the music of the Baroque period (Handel doesn’t count, he
was born German.) Perhaps no other composer until Benjamin Britten
(1913-1976) was as skilled at setting the English language to
music, and although he lived but a brief life, he was able to
produce a remarkable amount of music. Amongst his favorite compositional
techniques was the use of the ground bass, often called by its
Italian name of passacaglia in which the harmonic structure
is centered on a repeating bass melody. The restrictions that
this method places upon the composer could derail a lesser practitioner,
but Purcell made the gesture his own and came up with some fascinating
harmonic maneuvers in the process. A prime example of this technique
is the aria When I am laid in Earth from his only true
opera Dido and Aeneas (1689.)
Perhaps more famous
for his vocal music than his instrumental, Purcell was nonetheless
gifted in this area as well, and is represented here by two
fine examples of his trio sonatas, beautifully played.
A special mention
should be made about the skillful programming of this disc.
The longer instrumental works are nicely interspersed by brief
but lovely songs performed to perfection by Ms. Mercer, making
for an interesting variety of timbres and moods, and capturing
the interest of the listener throughout the entire concert.
In an epoch whose music was characterized by standard formulae
and common dance rhythms, discs of all one genre can get pretty
tiresome and monotonous. By breaking up the musical styles and
with the insertion of vocal works, Masques have given us a program
that is refreshingly varied.
Analekta were a
bit skimpy on the program notes, keeping them more general on
a disc of music this specialized than might be desired by connoisseur
listeners. Otherwise, production values are fine, and I expect
that male buyers will be a bit envious of the fact that M. Fortin
gets to spend his days surrounded by so attractive and talented
a group of ladies!
A real winner on
all fronts. Highly recommended.