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Tabea Demus (recorders, voice flute)
Alex McCartney (theorbo, baroque guitar)
Jonathan Rees (viola da gamba)
rec. 2020. St. Mary’s Parish Church, Edinburgh
DELPHIAN DCD34243 [70:28]

I am sure that most readers will already know or have worked it out for themselves, but (just in case) ohrwurm is the German equivalent of our word ‘earworm’. Actually, that phrasing is a little misleading, since the German word predates the English word by some 20-30 years. The current online edition of the Oxford English Dictionary defines an ‘earworm’ as “a catchy tune, piece of music, or (occasionally) phrase which persistently stays in a person’s mind”. The OED’s earliest example of the word (by H. Ross in H. Byrnes, ed. Perceptions of Language II) dates from 1982 and reads thus: “A poet does something to the words which you and I use in our everyday interactions and puts them there [sic] and they become what they call in German an ‘ohrwurm’”. In other European languages the same phenomenon is named in different, but equally vivid, fashion. The French talk of musique entÍtante (overpowering music) and the Italians of canzone tormentone (tormenting songs).

The words may be modern, but the phenomenon is far from being so. In their booklet essay, Tabea Demus and Mark Seow quote a short passage from the diary of Samuel Pepys. It is, I think, worth quoting a little more of the passage than they do – it is dated February 27th 1667/78. Pepys had been to see a performance of The Virgin Martyr, a Jacobean play by Thomas Dekker and Philip Massinger. He wasn’t greatly impressed by the play overall; but one episode made a considerable impression on him – “that which did please me beyond any thing in, the whole world was the wind-musique when the angel comes down, which is so sweet that it ravished me, and indeed, in a word, did wrap up my soul so that it made me really sick, just as I have formerly been when in love with my wife; that neither then, nor all the evening going home, and at home, I was able to think of any thing, but remained all night transported, so as I could not believe that ever any musick hath that real command over the soul of a man as this did upon me: and makes me resolve to practice wind-musique, and to make my wife do the like.”. Not only was he unable to clear his mind of this particular piece of music – it also made him resolve “to practice wind-musique, and to make [his] wife do the like”!

For this thoroughly enjoyable CD, Tabea Debus has put together a programme of ‘earworms’, familiar and unfamiliar, catchy tunes which captured the minds and imaginations of earlier centuries, tunes, for example, which once they had got into circulation were used and reused by other composers, safe in the knowledge that such melodies would engage the interest of listeners or amateur musicians. Her choice ranges across several centuries, from the fourteenth century to the late Baroque. She adds two new works, ‘Caffeine’ by Freya Waley-Cohen and ‘Diaries of the Early Worm’ by Gareth Moorcraft – both written in 2019 and both recorded here for the first time. Reviewing a live concert by Tabea Debus and Alex McCartney, Clive Davies says of ‘Caffeine’: “Seemingly this was composed on a transatlantic flight, prompted by an earworm and sustained by servings of hot coffee.”. The reviewer is surely unlikely to have made this up, and it is presumably something that was said from the stage or found in the programme note. In any case, Waley-Cohen’s piece for unaccompanied recorder, here played on a baroque soprano recorder in C, with remarkable breath control has the buzz and hyperactively unpausing energy that one associates with the excessive intake of caffeine. Gareth Moorcraft’s piece has no such high-tech modern origins – no aeroplane or coffee machine. His ‘Diaries of the Early Worm’ (played, this time, on an alto recorder in F), is “based on fragments from medieval troubadour songs” (Debus and Seow) – the pun in its title – on ‘early music’ and early birds which catch the worms (earworms?) – is almost as clever as Moorcraft’s music, which opens a little abrasively, but develops in witty and delightful fashion.

There isn’t a dull or uninteresting track anywhere on the CD. To mention just a few, ‘Lascia ch’io panga’, Almirena’s plea for her freedom to Argante, her abductor, is exquisitely plaintive and tender. There is a different kind of sweetness in ‘La suave melodia’ by Andrea Falconieri, originally written for violin and continuo but sounding wholly delicious here, played by Debus’s alto recorder and McCartney’s theorbo. The brisker ‘Spagnoletta’ by Carroubel (of whom I know very little) is played on soprano recorder, supported by baroque guitar and viola da gamba. This is very much the kind of piece one might find oneself whistling or humming post-concert (almost certainly a little inaccurately in my case).

If I had to choose just one track to put in a playlist, it might be ‘Fairest Isle’ – if only because this soprano aria from King Arthur has always been one of my favourite pieces by the English Orpheus – its praises of Venus and Love, though here non-verbal, have all the dignity and eloquence of the original in this arrangement for voice flute (an instrument whose range corresponds very closely with that of the soprano voice), theorbo and viola da gamba.

Some of the 20 tracks on this disc insinuate themselves through the ear and into the mind by virtue of their seductive melody (some of these have been discussed above); others enter the mind more ‘forcefully’ through the vivacity and insistence of their rhythms as, for example, Soler’s ‘Fandango’ or the opening ‘Ciaconna’, described as “after” Antonio Bertali (1605-69), Tarquinio Merula (1595-1665) and Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643).

Tabea Debus is the kind of virtuoso who makes you forget how superb she is technically, by the completeness with which she puts all her skill at the service of the music she plays, so that one’s attention is focused on the music, not on her. She is a genuinely exciting instrumentalist. Her colleagues, Jonathan Rees and Alex McCartney are deservedly well-respected figures in the worlds of Renaissance and Baroque music. The result of their three-way collaboration is a disc which once one has started listening to it almost compels one to listen all the way through to the end, and then repeat the experience at the earliest opportunity. The disc is not without its lessons to teach, but listened to just as entertainment it is irresistible too.

One query – wouldn’t earworms be better called ‘mindworms’ ?

Glyn Pursglove
1.Ciaconna [3:59]
George Fredric HANDEL (1685-1759)
2.Lascia ch’io pianga [4:11]
Pietro CASTRUCCI (1679-1752)
3-4.Sonata in D minor, Op.1, No. 10 [5:08]
Alessandro MARCELLO (1673-1752)
5.Concerto in D minor – Adagio [3:24]
Marin MARAIS (1656-1728)
6.Selection from Les folies d’Espagne [8:48]
7.Vuestros ojos tienen d’amor, from Robert Dowland, A Musical Banquet, 1610 [1:19]
Freya WALEY-COHEN (b.1989)
8.Caffeine [4:01]
Antonio SOLER (1729-1783)
9.Fandango in D minor, R 146 [5:48]
Arcangelo CORELLI (1653-1713)
10.The Favourite Gigg in Corelli’s 5th Solo,
With Divisions by Sig. Valentini [2:05]
Andrea FALCONIERI (1585-1656)
11.La suave melodia, y su corrente, from Il primo libro di canzone, 1650 [3:02]
12. La Monica (Une jeune fillette) [5:31]
Pierre-Francisque CARROUBEL (1556-1611/15)
13. Spagnoletta, from Michael Praetorius, Terpsichore, Musarum Aoniarum, 1612 [1:18]
14. When Daphne did from Phoebus fly, diminutions by Jacob van Eyck (c.1590-1657) [5:53]
Henry PURCELL (1659-1695)
15. Fairest Isle, from King Arthur and Orpheus Brittanicus (1698) [2:26]
John DOWLAND (1563-1626)
16. The Earle of Essex Galliard (Can she excuse my wrongs) [1:22]
TRADITIONAL (Scots folk-tune)
17. Auld Bob Morrice, from An Introduction to Good Taste in Music, Francesco Geminiani, 1749.
George Frederic HANDEL
18. Jig, from Siroe, re di Persia, HWV 24 [2:05]
Gareth MOORCRAFT (b. 1990)
19. Diaries of the Early Worm, for Tabea Debus [5:12]
20. Lamento di TristanoLa Rotta [2:59]

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