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17th Century Playlist
Ed Lyon (tenor)
Theatre of the Ayre
Texts and translations included.
rec. 2019, St. Martin’s Church, Salisbury, UK
DELPHIAN DCD34220 [61:30]

To say that I find the title of this album distracting and even mildly irritating no doubt makes me sound like a pedant, or simply a grumpy old man. I am probably both, but I am happy to say that it was just about the only thing I didn’t find satisfying about the disc.

The choice of songs is generally astute, mixing the relatively familiar with the more or less unknown. Lyon has gone for works which are, in the words of Elizbeth Kenny in her excellent booklet essay, “catchy and sophisticated at the same time”. Of the performances, I am content to borrow a phrase from David Copperfield – reading/rereading Dickens is one of my lockdown projects – they are perhaps not “absolutely beautiful, but extraordinarily pleasant” (this is what David Copperfield thinks of his friend Traddle’s intended bride when he first sees her).

Not surprisingly, the selection includes many songs of love, in one or more of its aspects - but love isn’t the only subject here; I found of particular interest a song by Stefano Landi which I can’t remember ever hearing before – ‘Passacaglia della vita’. The music is, indeed, quite catchy, though that quality might initially seem to be awkwardly at odds with the sung text. The anonymous text is an assertive reminder of the universal inevitability of death. The music, one gradually realizes, has its own affirmation to make: that happiness is possible even in the light of (and perhaps, surprisingly, because of) the text’s message. It stops the text sounding like one of those medieval poems on death which relish death and find in it the lesson that all aspects of earthly life are worthless. Landi clearly didn’t want to endorse such a message, even if the anonymous poet did. The composer was too much of a man of the late Renaissance to want to take such a view of things and the result might be described aa a piece of creative subversion.

Of the love songs, some are predictably Petrarchan (and not necessarily the worse for that). But at times the conventions are given a quirky twist. An intriguing such case ends the disc, the song again being by Landi – who evidently had a good eye for an interesting poem. This is ‘Canta la cicaletta’ (The little cicada sings).  The poem is here attributed to Fernando Saracinelli, who was the librettist of Francesca Caccini’s opera La liberazione di Ruggiero (1625). In it a lover singing of his unhappy love compares himself, first to a cicada, (not just a cicada but a “cicaletta” – a little cicada) and later to Orpheus. The poet, in doing so, plays games with scale and perspective, not unlike some of the paintings by Giulio Romano in ‘The Room of Giants’ in the Palazzo Te in Mantua, as the reader/listener’s attention changes focus from a small cicada to a man and then to Orpheus and back again to a man. Landi joins in the games, so that we hear something of the cicada’s buzzing in the opening lines and the later lines on Orpheus (a figure then very familiar from a number of the most important early operas) are invested with hints of heroism. Ed Lyon’s interpretation of ‘Canta la cicaletta’ is particularly successful. One senses, without anything being forced or overemphasized, his appreciation of the piece’s wit.

If, to return to my earlier quotation from Dickens, one looks for the “absolutely beautiful” then, for me at least, is to be found in two of the French songs in the programme, Michel Lambert’s ‘Vos mespris chaque jour’ and Antoine Boësset’s ‘Je voudrois bien, ô Cloris’. In these songs Lyon’s relatively light tenor is heard at its winning best and the playing of Theatre of the Ayre, with violins in the Lambert and without in the Boësset, complements it perfectly. Indeed, the work of Lyon’s continuo support is crucial to the success of this album, not least in the contributions made by Elizabeth Kenny.

I wondered whether the songs by Dowland were quite the best choice as English ‘representatives’ (alongside Lanier’s ‘Love’s Constancy) and whether a couple of songs by Henry Lawes wouldn’t have sat more comfortably alongside the French and Italian repertoire.

Despite the slightly negative tone of the opening words of this review, this is an album which, as I hope the body of my review has shown, I very largely enjoyed. Ed Lyon’s voice is one I find interesting to listen to and his interpretations here show that he is more than just a ‘voice’, since they are intelligent and sensitive. Elizabeth Kenny seems incapable of doing anything wrong these days and she enhances her reputation still further here. All concerned – and here I include recording engineer Paul Baxter – are careful to maintain a sense of scale and an acoustic appropriate for songs which (with the exception of Cavalli’s ‘Misero, così va’) were written for performance in the intimacy of royal or aristocratic courts. Another reason for admiring the disc is that its presentation is exemplary. I have already praised Elizabeth Kenny’s booklet essay, but I cannot resist quoting her delightful comment on Lanier’s ‘Love’s Constancy’, where she writes that, “The harmony hovers between a major and a minor sixth on the third bar of every four, pre-echoing Cole Porter’s ‘Every time we say goodbye’ by a few hundred years”. All the sung texts are here, complete with English translations as needed. And as I have already implied, the recorded sound is excellent. So, what is there not to like – oh yes, that title …

Glyn Pursglove

Francesco CAVALLI (1602-1676)
Misero, così va, from Eliogabalo [3:41]
Stefano LANDI (1587-1639) 
Passacaglia della Vita [3:52]
Pierre GUÉDRON (c.1565/70- c.1620)
Aux plaisirs, aux délices, bergères [4:03]
Nicholas LANIER (1588-1666)
Love’s Constancy (no more shall meads) [3:14]
Étienne MOULINIÉ (1599-1676)
O stelle homicide [3:25]
Giovanni Battista FONTANA (c.1630)
Sonata No. 17 [5:51]
Michel LAMBERT (c.1610-1696)
Vos mespris chaque jour [3:39]
Antoine BOËSSET (c.1586-1643)
Je voudrois bien, ô Cloris [4:50]
Stefano LANDI
Augelin che’l tuo amor [4:03]
Sébastien LE CAMUS (c.1610-1677)
Je veux me plaindre [4:41]
Giovanni Battista FONTANA
Sonata No. 8 [5:49]
Stefano LANDI
Damigella tutta bella [3:54]
John DOWLAND (1563-1626)
Time stands still [3:08]
My thoughts are wing’d with hopes [2:46]
Stefano LANDI
Cante la cicaletta [4:22]

Elizabeth Kenny (lute, guitar, theorbo), Siobhân Armstrong (triple harp, Irish harp), Reiko Ichise (viola da gamba), Rodolfo Richter and Jane Gordon (violins)

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