Volume 11, no. 1:John Bull. Kevin Komisaruk, organ. Atma Classique, 2000. [ACD 2 2239.]
Giles Farnaby. Farnabys Dreame, 20 Pieces from the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book. Timothy Roberts, harpsichord. Les Productions early-music.com, 2003. [EMCCD-7756.]
Seaven Teares: Music of John Dowland. The Kings Noyse. David Douglass, violin; Ellen Hargis, soprano; Paul ODette, lute. Harmonia mundi USA, 2002. [HMU 907275.]
Reviewed by Candace Bailey*
1.1 Of the three compact discs reviewed here, Kevin Komisaruks John Bull is certainly the most exciting—both conceptually and in performance. This simply titled collection includes sixteen pieces, including In nomines, fantasias, various plainsong settings, and carols. The most outstanding feature of the disc is the carefully selected variety and wonderfully paced organization of the volume as a whole. Each composition flows effortlessly and yet dramatically towards the next, even though the mixture is one that covers a wide period of Bulls life, including pieces from both England and the Continent. The disc has won several awards—deservedly so.
2.1 Rachael Taylors commentary traces Bulls path through the ranks of the Chapel Royal to his mysterious exile on the Continent, including her own thoughts on the possibility that Bull was working as a sort of spy during his sojourn across the Channel in 1601 or 1602. That Bull preferred plainsong settings to the freer fantasia (brought to new heights in the works of William Byrd) is borne out by the extant sources—although the possibility that he improvised such works, particularly those with a virtuoso bent, might need to be considered more thoroughly. The sheer technical requirements of many of his keyboard pieces suggest that he might have frequently used such a free genre to show off his prowess as an improviser; however, this is mere speculation. Nonetheless, Taylors suggestion that Bull preferred plainsong settings because he saw their limitations as a particularly inviting challenge (p. 6) is questionable in light of his extant works.
2.2 One of the most titillating aspects of Bulls predilection for plainsong settings is Taylors association of the In Nomine settings with the Cabala, noting symbols on his well-known portrait. The In Nomine chant, as used by Bull, consists of 54 notes, an important number in Christian-Cabalistic terms (p. 7). Most striking of Bulls settings of this particular cantus firmus is In nomine 9—the famous setting in which the melody appears in durations of eleven beats, all the while against a rather functional bass driving a root-position progression—the effect is a compositional tour de force unseen in the contemporary keyboard repertory.
3.1 Komisaruks performance on this recording is stunning. It is a compact disc to enjoy—not one merely to fill out ones collection. The choice of pieces includes a wide variety, even within a single genre, and the playing is never dull. The disc excellently represents Bulls works, yet the scope—organ solo—stays small enough to remain concentrated; it in no way resembles the Instrumental Works of Composer X discs that attempt to give a taste of ensemble works, organ pieces, harpsichord works, etc. Komisaruks registration choices are inventive, and his tempos work well for each selection.
3.2 That being said, there are many questions of musicological interest that remain unanswered. Which sources—if any—did Komisaruk consult? Many different versions of Bulls pieces circulated during the seventeenth century, and questions of accidentals or larger passages need to be considered. How does one reconcile the primary source chosen in the Musica Britannica edition1 with a rather different version copied by Thomas Tomkins in his autograph, F-Pn Rés. 1122? Another crucial item that should have been addressed in the accompanying materials is the organ—what type of organs Bull would have known and how the instrument used in the recording (the organ in the Church of St. John the Evangelist in Montreal) corresponds to what we know of Bulls experience. (Taylor does note on page 9 that the carol Laet ons met herten reijine implies a three-manual instrument, which was not known at Antwerp Cathedral at the time Bull was there.) Similarly, one feels a close adherence to the score in this recording that might have benefited from more experimentation and perhaps even abandon. Granted, most of these works are tightly constructed, but freedom is an inherent part of this style and the current performance does not tempt fate in that direction.
4.1 By far the most adventurous compact disc reviewed in this group, Farnabys Dreame attempts to bring to life the sound of an Elizabethan Kleinmeister (if thats not stretching the term too far) with a somewhat checkered past. It is by no means an easy task, for very few recordings of Farnabys music have been made, and to perform solely the works of this oft-mentioned but less-respected composer is a brave move. Of Farnabys 53 extant keyboard works, all but two are found in the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, thus the current recording yields a representative sampling of the composers works as they are known to have circulated during his lifetime.
5.1 Timothy Roberts is responsible for this entire production—booklet, editing, and performance. This is no simple undertaking, since the source material itself is problematic in many regards. Roberts cites Richard Marlows comments on the unevenness of Farnabys music,2 and the information Roberts provides on Farnaby and his music contains just the right blend of facts, issues, and questions. All of the music on this recording is from the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book—perhaps the most well known of all sources of English keyboard music—and that fact deserves comment. Published in a modern edition in its entirety in 1899, the manuscript is long overdue for a new edition (and the various volumes dancing around it by Musica Britannica—including Christopher Hogwoods forthcoming volume of pieces selected from it—will hardly suffice for a re-examination of its importance). Roberts acknowledges some of the problems he faced in preparing this recording, and his candor is refreshing, particularly in light of the lack of such information accompanying some modern recordings (including the John Bull booklet).
5.2 Robertss comments that Farnaby might have been a recusant and a possibly had an association with William Byrd (highlighted by Farnabys move to Lincoln?) are especially intriguing. Farnaby is unusual among the virginalists, being a joiner by trade and not a part of the Chapel Royal, as so many contemporary virginalists were.
6.1 The first thing that struck me upon hearing this recording was the unevenness of the music itself. Inconsistency has long been noted in Farnabys music, and no performance of sixty-plus minutes of his music can disguise the fact. As several authors have noted, Farnaby excels in the miniature and gets rather distracted and even lost in the larger forms, particularly the fantasia. Roberts admits to sprucing up the music in certain places, providing missing contrapuntal parts that seem to have vanished, working out mistakes (not uncommon in this repertory and especially in the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book), and making other changes as necessary. That he does this so well is a testament to his abilities as a keyboard player and his familiarity with the repertory. Roberts has been playing this music for more than twenty years on a wide collection of instruments, and his comfort with the repertory is one of the best aspects of this recording. His repetitions (and there are many in Farnabys works) seem effortless, yet artful, in the addition of figures and ornaments—some marked and some not. In particular, Robertss sense of timing is flawless, allowing the music to breathe and giving the somewhat jarring progressions (so common in this repertory) time to move logically from one to the other.
6.2 The instrument Roberts uses for this recording has a beautifully clear, transparent, yet rich, quality. It is a replica by Malcolm Rose of the only surviving harpsichord from Elizabethan England (built nonetheless by Lodewijck Theewes, who had come from Antwerp to London). Most modern writers have suggested that Farnaby was a maker of virginals, so the choice of harpsichord is unusual. Roberts notes (p. 8) that the term virginalists is misleading, but this does not entirely account for the slight distinction in instruments. In any event, the use of the 4´ alone on A Toye (track 11) is a dramatic move that succeeds wonderfully for Roberts.
6.3 A rather odd move by Roberts is not to place the character pieces together on the disc, for these works (the Giles Farnabys Dream, His Rest, and His Humour) are located together in the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book. Certainly that is not reason in and of itself to keep them together, but they do make a nice set, and there seems to be no reason to separate them.
7.1 The exciting appeal of Komisaruks Bull cannot be used as a measure of the Kings Noyses recording of Dowlands Seaven Teares. The self-described melancholic composer deliberately set out to publish a group of somber pieces in the 1604 collection entitled Lachrimæ or Seaven Teares Figured in Seaven Passionate Pavans, with Divers other Pavans, Galiards, and Almands, Set Forth for the Lute, Viols, or Violons, in Five Parts—clearly exuberance is not part of this program. Even so, in some of the dances in the collection, the Kings Noyse does impart an appropriate sense of liveliness within the often plaintive, if not dour, mood given the music by the composer himself. In fact, to quote Dowland, as Scott Metcalfe does in his booklet (p. 10), the music is grave with light—and is effectively performed in this manner.
7.2 The star of the collection is Dowlands group of seven settings of his famous Lachrimae pavan (the seven teares), which had begun circulating in lute versions in the 1590s. The vocal setting Flow my tears came somewhat later, in the 1600 collection of Dowlands Second Booke of Songs or Ayres. The other songs on the disc were a part of either this collection or the First Booke of Songs (1613).
8.1 Metcalfes notes to the compact disc provide a well-rounded introduction to the Lachrimae tradition in Dowlands music, and contain a wealth of references to commentaries in the literature. The notes do, however, seem a bit distanced from the recording itself: the recording opens with several dances that were published along with the Lachrimae pavans, yet the discussion focuses almost exclusively on the famous pavan and its derivations. The booklet is wonderfully descriptive of the mainstay of the recording and its various meanings, but a little more insight into the other works—some of which were extremely popular—would have rounded out the presentation.
8.2 Similarly, with such a full explanation of the Lachrimae tradition (replete with footnotes, etc.), some explanation of performance beyond descriptions of the instruments themselves would have been beneficial. Was there room to maneuver with the instrumentation? Did the performers add much to the original or are they playing it as written? The challenges the repertory presents to the performers are intriguing and deserve some comment here.
9.1 Every performance on this compact disc is appropriately subdued; as Metcalfe knowingly comments, Dowland could make even G major sound melancholy (p. 11). In choosing perhaps the most famous compositions in the Elizabethan consort repertory, The Kings Noyse open themselves up for comparison with numerous recordings, yet they fulfill expectations in most regards. Breaking up the consort pieces with songs is a questionable move, but placing Flow my teares at the end—rather than beginning—of the Lachrimae pavan sequence was an excellent choice. Beyond that, however, I wonder if the disc might have been more effective without the vocal selections. They do indeed complement the overall mood of the recording, but are they necessary?
9.2 Nevertheless, Ellen Hargiss interpretations are effective, correspondingly poignant, and mood inducing. However, there are times when her diction is covered by her expression, making it difficult to understand the words without following the booklet. This aside, Hargiss voice works perfectly with the sound of the instruments, permitting enough tension when necessary to follow the sometimes angular harmonies, yet sweet and still when the notes call for it.
9.3 The ensemble work is flawless and restrained—never overly optimistic as might be suggested by contemporary masque music; indeed, the tone remains melancholic throughout, as one supposes Dowland himself must have been.
* Candace Bailey (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Assistant Professor of Music at North Carolina Central University. She is the author of Seventeenth-Century British Keyboard Sources (Harmonie Park Press, 2003); editor of The Keyboard Music of John Roberts, Art of the Keyboard 8 (The Broude Trust, 2003); and editor of Late-Seventeenth-Century English Keyboard Music: Ob Mus.Sch. D. 219 and Och Ms. 1177 (A-R Editions, 1997). She has also published several articles on keyboard music and theory in seventeenth-century England.
1 John Bull: Keyboard Music, ed. John Steele, Francis Cameron, and Thurston Dart, Musica Britannica 14 and 19 (London: Stainer and Bell, 1960 and 1963, revised 1967, 1970, 2001). [See the review by David Schulenberg of the latest revision of MB 14 in the present issue of JSCM. —ed.]
2 Giles & Richard Farnaby: Keyboard Music, ed. Richard Marlow, Musica Britannica 24 (London: Stainer and Bell, 1965, revised 1974).
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