In 17th-century England the royal court played a central role
in cultural, and more specifically, musical life. But members
of the wealthy upper class gradually started to play their role
too. Learning to sing or to play an instrument became part of
their education, and music was recognised as an increasingly important
part of everyday life. As a result there was an increase in the
demand for sheet music and musical instruments. This is reflected
by the number of collections of music and also treatises on how
to play the recorder or the viola da gamba, to mention two of
the most popular instruments.
This disc presents
two genres of music which were very popular in the 17th century,
and which were played both at court and in private homes. One
of them is music for 'consort', a kind of ensemble which today
is almost exclusively associated with England, but was very common
in the whole of Europe during the renaissance. Whereas in the
early 17th century consort music gradually disappeared in countries
like Italy and France to make way for music for melody instruments
and basso continuo, it remained popular in England until the end
of that century. Even Purcell wrote music for consort.
One of the forms of
consort music was the so-called 'fantasia-suite', a modern term
- not used in the 17th century - for a piece beginning with a
fantasia, followed by an almain and a galliard. John Coprario
and William Lawes are two of the main composers of music for consort,
and both wrote a number of these fantasia-suites.
Coprario's real name
was John Cooper (or Cowper) but he himself italianised his name
for an unknown reason. It is suggested it could have been under
the influence of a visit to Italy, which is not impossible, but
not documented. Several authors state he taught the viola da gamba
to the Prince of Wales, son of James I and the later Charles I,
but this is difficult to prove. What is certain, though, is that
Charles appointed him as 'composer-in-ordinary' in 1625, when
he ascended the throne. William Lawes was one of Coprario's pupils,
and he also played an important role at the court of Charles I.
Lawes died in 1645 during the Civil War, which was a great shock
for King Charles, who honoured him with the title 'Father of Musick'.
There are two kinds
of consort: the 'whole' consort, consisting of instruments of
one family, specifically viols or recorders, and the 'mixed' consort
- sometimes referred to as 'broken' consort - which consists of
members of different families. The fantasia-suites played here
were all written for violin, bass viol and organ. In the booklet
Saskia Coolen states: "The instrumental ensemble used for
this recording is a combination of gamba and recorder with either
organ or harpsichord". But she fails to explain why the music
played here can be performed by a 'broken consort'. Considering
the popularity of the recorder and of recorder consorts in England
in the 17th century, some music for viol consort certainly can
be played by such an ensemble - as several recordings demonstrate
- but to play these fantasia-suites with instruments of different
families is very questionable.
One of the problems
is the balance within the ensemble. In consort music all voices
are treated on equal terms. Considering the contrapuntal texture
of the fantasia-suites the blending of the instruments is essential.
And that is what is lacking here. In the fantasia-suites by Coprario
the recorder tends to dominate and overshadow the organ and the
bass viol, in particular when it is playing in its highest register.
I have never heard that in performances with a violin. At the
other end of the spectrum the opposite is happening. In Coprario's
pieces the organ often doubles one of the other voices. When the
upper voice of the organ plays the same line as the recorder in
its lower register, the two parts are hardly distinguishable.
After all, the sound of the recorder and the organ are very close
anyway, as they are both wind instruments. There are no problems
in this respect, when a violin is used: organ and violin blend
well, but never lose their individual character.
Balance is also the
problem in the fantasia-suites by Lawes. In the Fantasia-suite
in g minor the organ part is played on the harpsichord. It can
never blend with the other instruments as much as the organ. Besides,
long-held notes in the keyboard part have to be broken up in shorter
notes, for instance through arpeggios. This undermines the contrapuntal
texture of these pieces, and in addition the harpsichord dominates
both recorder and bass viol. Even more bizarre is the Fantasia-suite
in D: in the almain the organ is used, in the galliard the harpsichord,
and in the opening fantasia they are used simultaneously. How
Patrick Ayrton has done that is a mystery to me: the booklet doesn't
indicate the use of a clavi-organum, but how someone can play
organ and harpsichord at the same time I don't understand. I assume
the recording technique has given a helping hand here. Anyhow,
the reasoning escapes me, and the result is totally unconvincing.
The other part of
this disc is devoted to 'divisions', another very popular musical
form, as the collections from which this music comes demonstrate.
The pieces by George Tollett - about whom nothing is known - and
David Mell, member of the court violin band since 1620, are from
'The Division Violist' which was published by John Playford in
1684/85. One of the main composers of divisions was Christopher
Simpson, who also published a treatise on the subject: 'The Division-Viol'
of 1667, from which the piece on this disc is taken. 'Division'
is a technique of improvised variation in which the notes of a
ground are divided into shorter ones. This genre was especially
popular in the second half of the 17th century. The three pieces
of this kind are well played, but there is something to question
here too: the basso continuo part of the last item on the programme,
David Mell's 'John come kiss me now', is played with the buff
stop of the harpsichord. I find this rather odd, even though the
performance is one of the best on this disc. Also from a historical
point of view: did English harpsichords or foreign instruments
used in England have a buff stop, and was it used to play the
In addition to the fantasia-suites and the divisions a couple
of keyboard pieces are played, by Aston and an anonymous master
respectively - well played, but chronologically a bit out of step
with the rest of the programme. Another odd one out is the set
of three variations on 'Daphne', as it is not English but from
a Dutch manuscript. It is written for keyboard, but played here
with harpsichord and recorder, which is perfectly legitimate.
For the most part this recording is unsatisfactory because of
the use of a recorder and a harpsichord in repertoire which is
not very suitable for this combination. This way the artists don't
do the music or themselves any justice. The divisions are done
pretty well, but they can't save this disc as a whole.
Johan van Veen