Music for the Eyes - Masques and Fancies
Concerto Scirocco/Giulia Genini
rec. Feb. 2021 at the Landgasthof, Riehen (BL), Switzerland
Reviewed as a stereo 16/44 download with pdf booklet from Outhere
ARCANA A523 [63:59]
There are many recordings of English music of the late 16th and early 17th centuries. On the one hand, there is a large repertoire of sacred music, both in English (for the Church of England) and in Latin (for the secret services of the Catholics). On the other hand, much music was written for domestic performances among the higher echelons of society: music for a consort of instruments, in particular viols, and for solo instruments, such as keyboard and lute. And then there was music of a theatrical nature, either for performances at the court or for the general public. The main form was that of the masque, which had its origins in the 16th century, and was an important part of musical entertainment at the court. The masque was a mixture of spoken texts, songs, dances and instrumental music. The names of the poet Ben Jonson and the stage architect Inigo Jones are connected with the court masques as they were performed during the first half of the 17th century. Elsewhere audiences enjoyed the performances of theatre masques, which survived the demise of the court masque and developed into the masques and semi-operas written after the Restoration.
It is hardly possible to reconstruct masques as they may have been performed at the time. Too many elements have been lost or were never written down. What has been left is mainly songs and instrumental music, in particular dances, which give us some idea of one of the main elements of masques. The title of the disc under review here explains the connection between music and dance: "Music for the eyes". Peter Walls, in his liner-notes, writes: "For [Inigo] Jones, the spectacle [scenery and costumes] epitomised visual harmony. He annotated [Leon Battista] Alberti's Architettura [Italian translation, 1550] 'the same numbers that please the ear please the eye'. A song in Coelum Britannicum (1634) instructs the dancers thus: 'With changing figures, please the curious eye, and charme the eare with moving Harmonie'."
The dances that were part of masques were also part of musical entertainment outside the theatre, such as chamber music and music for keyboard and lute. The programme offers a mixture of music which could be played during masques or may have specifically intended for it, and pieces that were played at home, for instance the Fantazias by John Hilton. Fancies, as they were generally known, were typically English; they were an important part of English instrumental music until the Restoration of 1660, which marked the start of a shift towards the baroque style.
The programme spans a period of about fifty years. The performers have avoided several traps which could compromise a recording like this one. First: the subtitle makes a difference between the masque and the fancy. That way they avoid giving the impression that fantasias as those by Hilton were performed during masques. Second, they have not added percussion indiscriminately, as I have heard in other recordings. Percussion undoubtedly played a part in masques, but not every dance needs it. Here only five of the 21 items include percussion. Third, the scoring of instrumental music was mostly not indicated, and even if it was, it was pretty common to adapt a piece to the circumstances, including the availability of instruments. That said, one cannot simply play each piece on whatever instruments one would like. For instance, consort music can be played by an ensemble of viols or recorders, or with a 'broken consort' - an ensemble with instruments of different families - but not by an ensemble of cornetts and sackbuts. The performers are doing a good job in this respect. Hilton's Fantazies are played with strings, and in two cases in a mixture of strings and recorder. The loud wind instruments are rightly employed in music of a theatrical nature, such as those by Robert Johnson and John Adson.
There is only one issue. The programme includes pieces by William Brade, who was English by birth, but had settled in northern Germany, where he also published his collections of dances. One wonders whether they were known in England. One can hardly consider them 'English music'. His Coral is a piece for solo violin, and it is more than questionable whether such music was played in England. The violin was known, but played mainly dance music and could be an alternative for the treble viol in consort music. However, it was not until the mid-17th century that the violin was played as a solo instrument.
There is also an editorial issue, which concerns the figure of John Hilton. His dates are given in the tracklist as 1575 and 1628. Two composers of this name are known: father and son. The birth dates of the father are not known; he died in 1609 or earlier, and he has left almost exclusively sacred music. According to New Grove his son was born in 1599 and died in 1657. I wonder where the dates in the track-list are coming from: new research? Or is this just an error? Anyway, there seems little doubt that the Fantazies included here are from the pen of the son.
The ensemble consists of thirteen instrumentalists, who play a wide range of instruments: violins, viols, cornetts, sackbuts, recorder, dulcian and plucked and keyboard instruments. As I already indicated, the performers don't use them indiscriminately, and they are well aware of the different nature of the pieces they have selected. The result is a highly entertaining programme, which is given excellent performances. Concerto Scirocco has made some very fine discs before, for instance with canzonas by Giovanni Picchi (review). Here they confirm the excellent impression they made in that production. With the present disc they have added another jewel to their crown.
Johan van Veen
John HILTON (1599-1657)
Fantazia IV [3:09]
Robert JOHNSON (1583-1633)
The Satyrs Masque [2:51]
John ADSON (1587-1640)
Courtly Masquing Ayres Nos. 20 & 21 [2:36]
Johney Cock thy Beaver: a Scotch Tune to a Ground [3:10]
Fantazia V [3:30]
William BRADE (1560-1630)
Division Woodycock [3:20]
A Division [2:57]
Fantazia III [2:14]
Der Pilligrienen Tanz [2:00]
Hugh ASHTON (1485-1558)/William WHYTBROKE (1500-1569)
Hugh Ashton's Maske [4:12]
The Tempest [1:49]
Fantazia II [2:25]
Fantazia I [3:33]
Courtly Masquing Ayre No. 16 [2:13]
Courtly Masquing Ayre No. 17 [1:38]
Canzon XVI [4:05]
William BYRD (1539/40-1623)
Sermone Blando [3:21]
Anthony HOLBORNE (1545-1602)
Almaine The Night Watch [2:03]