Ewald Demeyere’s recording of 18th Century Flemish Harpsichord Music was much admired by colleague Johan van Veen (see review) so I was keen to hear what this themed release of Harpsichord Laments of an earlier period would deliver.
It might seem a bit too much of a good or gloomy thing to have an entire programme based on mournful music, but these “meditations or contemplations” were very much a strong thread at the time. After all, this was a period in which youthful decease or social turbulence of one kind or another led to composers and poets reflecting on death and loss in moving terms.
Demeyere mixes things up a little by presenting works on two instruments. The virginal used here is a ‘square’, smaller brother to the harpsichord, this and the latter being fine reproductions of existing examples. The virginal is based on models by Andreas Ruckers. The harpsichord was made after an anonymous example to be found in the London Courtauld Institute. Beautifully tuned and prepared, the only criticism which can be made of these instruments is that they almost sound too clean and perfect. If you prefer your ancient music a bit noisy and clattery then these instruments, and the clinically spotless environment in which they have been recorded, may make you itch for something a little less laboratory-bound.
There are more sprightly movements with dances such as the Gigue, Courant and Sarabande of the Froberger Fantasia and similar movements from the Louis Couperin Suite, so it’s not all slow moodiness. The Froberger is chosen for its opening Lament on the sad loss of His Royal Majesty FERDINAND IV, King of the Romans, commemorating this tragic death at the age of only 21. The Couperin Suite has been compiled by Demeyere, building on the finale of the well-known Tombeau de Mr de Blancrocher, a Paris lutenist whose tragic end happened in 1652. The preceding Chaconne is a big favourite, and the opening prelude non mesuré and subsequent movements suit the mood and add contrast perfectly.
These multi-movement works and the Froberger Fantasia are played on the harpsichord, the more intimate sound of the virginal reserved for Byrd’s Lachrimae Pavan which, like the more obscure Melchior Schildt’s Paduana Lagrima is a version of John Dowland’s popular Flow my Tears. Thomas Tomkins’ A Sad Pavan for these Distracted Tymes is in some ways the centrepiece for this programme, expressing deep sadness at the beheading of Charles I. It was completed just weeks after this truly remarkable event in English history.
This release, with its startlingly vivid ‘demonstration’ recorded sound and admirably executed concept, is something towards which lovers of well-played harpsichord and early keyboard music can gravitate with confidence.