Notes and Editorial Reviews
Soloists: Robin Blaze, Elizabeth Kenny, Rebecca Outram, Robert MacDonald, William Carter, Frances Kelly.
This is Robin Blaze and Elizabeth Kenny’s fourth celebration of English song for Hyperion. In 1999 they recorded ‘English lute songs’ (CDA 67126, no longer available), in 2001 a Campion recital and in 2003 Byrd consort songs. Now they have chosen to focus on Henry Lawes, the most significant English songwriter of the mid-17th century, with 433 known songs and his younger brother William, who produced around 150 but is better known for his innovative consort music.
This disc begins with William Lawes’ most popular song, a setting of Herrick with whom at one time he shared lodgings, Gather your rosebuds while you may (tr. 1). It is in its version for three voices, here soprano, counter-tenor and bass. The performance is stylishly vivacious and direct in progress, bright in melody and tone, florid in light ornamental garnishing. On the other hand it has a quieter and ever so slightly lingering touch on occasion for reflection, as in the first stanza’s final word, ‘dying’ (0:22). This all fits the sentiments of the poem: enjoy your youth because time will soon take it. You can hear the whole performance on the Hyperion website.
I compared the 1984 Hilliard Ensemble recording (Harmonia Mundi 1951153). Though one second shorter in timing it has less drive and variation in projection than on Hyperion. This is largely because of the different vocal forces. The Hilliard use counter-tenor, tenor and bass, are more smiling and refined, with more emphasis on euphony. This is the only other currently available recording of any song on the Hyperion disc.
I also compared the solo version, which uses the more familiar, I’d guess original, opening ‘Gather ye rosebuds’ which Robin Blaze recorded on Hyperion CDA 67126. The text is also a little different in the third stanza. This performance is the freshest and most animated of all, with a timing of 1:19, and also has that telling slight lingering on ‘dying’.
For Henry Lawes’ most popular song, The Angler’s Song: Man’s life is but vain, for ’tis subject to pain , a setting of Izaak Walton, you have to skip to track 25. It’s a racy party piece: cast aside all your cares ‘and angle and angle again’. This is a strophic song, that is the two stanzas have the same music, so pacy the more upbeat second stanza is repeated in full before the refrain repeat so you don’t feel the song has finished before it began. Blaze and Kenny give it plenty of spirit but I can imagine it as a drinking chorus with the tune treated to considerable licence.
Neither of these popular settings is really typical. Sweet, stay awhile; why do you rise? (tr. 4) is a better example of Henry Lawes’ style. This is a setting of John Donne, decking out in poetic fancy the request that is basically ‘lie with me a little longer’. It’s also a strophic song and its melodic line in essence is comparable to the forlorn beauty of the earlier Dowland, though not quite as smooth. As performed here by Blaze and Kenny it’s quite sensuous and intense. Lawes matches the artifice of the poetry by making Italianate ornamentation inherent in the musical setting. So at ‘rise’ (0:11) there’s a rising glissando and similar treatment in the second stanza of ‘desire’ (1:51) and ‘joys’ (2:21). The refrain repeats of both stanzas are invitations for further ornamentation. This is the spirit of Lawes’ time and is impressive to hear. But the genius of Dowland is that his melodies are memorable and invite you, if you have anything approaching a voice, to sing along. You’ll really appreciate Blaze’s fine artistry and what technique and experience is required should you attempt to sing along to Lawes.
If you happened to listen to BBC Radio 3’s Early Music Show on 7 January 2007 you’d have heard the tenor Michael Slattery sing this song with Jakob Lindberg at the lute. Their faster tempo, 2:37 against Blaze and Kenny’s 3:01, makes for a more ardent, if also more breathy, interpretation, with the leaps, for example to ‘joys’ in the second stanza, more evocative. I liked Slattery’s rolling of the ‘r’ on ‘raise desire’ in the second stanza. But Blaze’s melisma on ‘rise’ in the first stanza is more stylish and also pristine. His closing ‘perish’ fades, like the poet’s joy, into nothingness. However, although Lawes was himself described as a counter-tenor, it’s good to be reminded these songs are suitable for any high voice.
A Tale out of Anacreon (tr. 2), the Greek poet, is a scena or dramatic monologue, so it’s through-composed, that is with continuously new music, softer in outline than, say, Monteverdi but with similar characteristics. It’s a visitation by a child whose true identity isn’t realized until it’s too late. A sultry theorbo introduction leads to the voice setting a nocturne but all quickens from 0:46 with the start of the action. It’s this variation of pace and reaction, stylishly accomplished by Blaze and Kenny, that makes the piece. In turn we get a simple plea (1:06), flood of emotion (1:12), a Britten-like response to beauty (1:38), graphic ornamentation to depict chafing hands (2:14) and dripping hair (2:33) before a pacy climax in which the notes fly forth.
Oh, that joy so soon should waste (tr. 3) is a setting of Ben Jonson, trying to prolong the experience of a kiss. You admire the way the music savours the aspects the poetry does and in the refrain the ornamentation becomes extravagant to match the exuberant fancy of the close.
From time to time on this CD comes the agreeable contrast of a lute solo. The first of these, Monsieur Saman his Coranto (tr. 5) Kenny makes a happy, easy-flowing idealization of the dance, as much nymph-like as courtly. And we stay in a kind of wonderland for Henry Lawes’ next song, Amarillis, by a spring (tr. 6), another setting of Herrick. The sleeping Amarillis is thought dead by a robin who tenderly makes funeral preparations then finds they’re unnecessary. Lawes’ music has a melting sensitivity, sometimes in the soulful contemplative aura of the opening of sections, as at the beginning of the piece and later, of the refrain, ‘Poor Robin-redbreast’ (1:51), sometimes expressed in shivers of vocal ornaments, for example a fluttering ‘fled’ (0:28), shimmering ‘flames’ (1:18) and eager ‘chirped’ (2:06). Our singer Robin also chirps vividly but he earlier forgets the poet’s robin is also male, incorrectly at 0:56 singing ‘she’ rather than ‘he saw her stir’.
Oh, let me still and silent lie (tr. 7) is the first solo song by William Lawes to feature. It’s a dramatic arioso in which the rejected lover argues against remaining involved. The swooning theorbo introduction descends to the depths where, for the first stanza, the singer proudly languishes, with a tellingly illustrative ornament on ‘sorrow’ (0:39) along the way. In the second stanza the temperature and intensity rises, recalling ‘her cruelty’ (1:22). Hotter still is ‘the dispatching rage’ (1:54) in the third stanza, after which there’s an absorbed gaze on ‘thy secret fires’ (2:11). The final stanza is more resigned but not before a poignant moment, a repeated ‘aye me’ (2:47) remembering past happiness when the possibility of love again is broached. As in Henry Lawes’ A Tale out of Anacreon the variation of pace is impressive, but here the cast is altogether more morose.
Oh, my Clarissa, thou cruel fair (tr. 8) is a strophic song with a memorable tune which, Elizabeth Kenny’s scholarly booklet notes state, appeared as a popular Sarabande in Playford’s Court Ayres of 1655. The music’s firm directness rather makes a gallant pose of what is potentially a desperate plea for a positive response from one who has fallen in love. This artistic distancing is furthered by the use in this performance of interpolated ‘stanzas’ for instruments alone after the second and fourth sung stanzas, on the first occasion emphasising the artistry in the expression of the sentiment and delivery of the tune, on the second providing a more reflective interlude.
With regard to vocal expression, the tune accommodates, and gets from Blaze, a great variety of presentation. The first stanza refrain features more skipping ornamentation in its repeat (0:25). The second stanza has exuberant ornamentation, for instance on ‘lightning’ (0:51) and especially in the refrain repeat on ‘feel’ (1:13). However, in the third stanza the refrain repeat is plainer, a straighter, though varied, melodic line and the same practice, again with melodic variation, serves the fourth stanza. In the fifth stanza more ornamentation is applied again, notes inégales, that is a stylized dotted rhythm, the concentration required for this being such that Blaze fluffs his words in the refrain repeat, where ‘bowers’ comes out as ‘hours’ (4:06). In the sixth and final stanza the delivery has some flourishes but is generally more even again, making for a strong conclusion.
From the heav’ns now I fly (tr. 9) by Henry Lawes is a setting of Milton from the masque Comus. As Kenny’s note points out “He rearranged lines which Milton had intended for the end of the piece to give himself a glamorous and dramatic entrance.” It’s certainly that, as performed by Blaze and Kenny. The poetry paints an extravagant idyllic picture of the heavens. The music varies between the exuberant confidence of radiant light and the seductive ease of luscious plenty. This means that there are opportunities which Blaze takes to show both golden tone and vivacious line. Notable are the little peal with which the three daughters of Hesperus ‘sing’ (1:01) and the drawn-out ornament on ‘soft’ (1:49) which almost counts the many cherubs described. Yes, it’s over the top, but so is the poetry. And the easeful luxury side of it continues in the Corant from William Lawes’ Royall Consort in an arrangement for lute, theorbo and harp (tr. 10) which glides along gracefully, almost seamless.
Sweet Echo, sweetest nymph that liv’st unseen (tr. 11) is another Henry Lawes song from Comus, this time to anonymous words and sung by the soprano Rebecca Outram because a soprano sang it originally. It’s good to have the contrast of more rarefied, thinner, drier tone than Blaze’s counter-tenor and thereby a more intimate manner of performance which is appropriate to this portrait of the reclusive Echo. Appreciable here is the gentle but effective broadening out of line at ‘her sad song mourneth well’ (0:48) and the growingly intense appeal to Echo.
William Lawes’ Country Dance (tr. 12) is a solo version from Playford’s Courtly Masquing Ayres of 1662 of the Morris in his D major consort. It’s a playful, sunny tune and Kenny deftly negotiates the intricacies of its lute clothing.
Henry Lawes’ Oh sweet woods, the delight of solitariness (tr. 13), a setting of Sidney, continues the Sweet Echo theme in praise of the reclusive life, intensely projected by Blaze with particularly vehement rejection at ‘from love’s delight retired’ (0:38). Also memorably affecting is the high tessitura opening of the refrain ‘To birds, to trees, to earth’ (1:25).
Now comes a novelty: a 17th century Anna Russell. Tavola: In quell gelata core una voce (tr. 14) is Henry Lawes setting part of the contents list of Antonio Cifra’s Scherzi ed Arie of 1614 to show he can be as expressive as the Italians. The opening is bright and chipper, all display and dazzle. At 0:46 you can just hear a sparrow chirping in the background, perhaps attracted by it. Then from ‘O sempre’ (0:49) plunging into melancholy, heatedly reliving scorn (1:03) and ‘woe is me’ (1:19). But the final section, ‘Cosi mia vita’ (1:37) takes us to soft, beguiling love-song. So the satire ends with a kind of affection.
Loves Sweet Repose: Amidst the myrtles as I walk (tr. 15) is a strophic song setting of Herrick, a poetic dialogue between Love and the forsaken lover which provides plenty of opportunity for fond recollection but at the end soberly shuts the door on any permanence. The melody is unusually strong for Henry Lawes with two bright, high tessitura opening lines, a characteristically contrasted gaunter, dusky third one before a resolving fourth. This performance begins with three instrumental ‘stanzas’ for theorbo, lute and harp, the first two working out the tune, the third presenting it fully formed with its refrain repeat. There’s another instrumental ‘stanza’ after the third sung stanza and a further one after the final sung stanza in which the theme fragments, even more than at the beginning, thus illustrating the moral of impermanence. Blaze’s vocal performance is a model of the tasteful gradual application of ornamentation, for example a suitable display at ‘enameled fancy’ (2:28), a ‘curious eye’ (2:36) which tremors vividly and ‘streams’ (2:59) with an inbuilt realistic current. You can hear this entire song on the Hyperion website.
No Reprieve: Now, now Lucasia, now make haste (tr. 16) is a strophic song with a recurring refrain. A lover who can take no more rejection hovers on the edge of death. It’s cumulatively effective because of the repetition of the music yet variation in its performance, the mounting extravagance of the dying refrain Blaze creates, a song clearly enjoyable to sing and to listen to. The first stanza is presented plainly enough in the verse but the refrain is immediately more expansive. The second stanza is more urgent. The third stanza, ‘Look in my wound’ (1:40) has become expansive in tempo and ornamentation. The tempo picks up again for the fourth stanza and there’s a particularly enjoyable fanfare made of ‘shout’ (2:56) and flourish for the final refrain’s ‘die’ (3:24) before the voice just fades away.
Cuthbert Hely, Kenny’s note tells us, was an obscure lute teacher who wrote “tortured interior music”. His Fantasia (tr. 17) has a brooding low register start, an environment from which the melody rises yet remains of a predominantly sad, reflective cast. At the same time, however, it is spurred on, somewhat erratically, by a nervous energy. By way of an unintended but more natural contrast, some birdsong can be heard in the background at the beginning and end of the piece.
Slide soft, you silver floods (tr. 18) is a strophic song of stark, angular line of wide compass and contrast of upper and lower register, evoking nature to overturn it because ‘I weeping bid my love farewell’. The musical setting catches the poem’s mounting violence. Blaze gives an achingly expressive performance with intelligent variation of pace and degree of demonstrative ornamentation and is, as ever, well supported by Kenny. Noteworthy is the catch, almost stammer in the voice at ‘silence on each dale’ (0:35) which holds your attention. Similarly ‘heavy murmurs’ (1:48) are finely evoked by a guttural, low-lying theorbo. Next Cuthbert Hely features again, this time with a Saraband (tr. 19) of blithe outlook yet still a quietly musing nature in its emphasis on internal repetitions and cross references.
When shall I see my captive heart? (tr. 20) is an unusual strophic setting in that each of the 2 stanzas consists of 2 sets of 4 lines, both of which are repeated, so the effect is of a double refrain. The structure suits this philosophic piece whose message is hope might be wishful thinking but it’s also a remedy. Blaze begins in plain presentation of smilingly reflective fashion, the first repeat (0:29) with trippingly playful ornamentation added. The second repeat (1:16) is similarly treated, with a slight increase in elaboration. The second stanza opening (1:43) is more floridly presented, its first repeat still more so. In the second part there’s profuse display at ‘banish all despair’ (2:39), but thereafter for the repeat a sensitive degree of toning down with more gentle appoggiaturas than shakes.
There’s more evidence now of William Lawes’ prowess at instrumental music in 3 sunny, benign, untroubled lute duets. The Alman (tr. 21) is intimate and graceful in its progress, the two lutes complementing each other in gently rippling manner. The Corant (tr. 22) is a little more forthright, as if with something of a wish to go places. Another Corant (tr. 24) is brighter, more outgoing in melody yet more content in itself.
In the mean time, a second change of voice with William Lawes’ A Dreame: I laid me down upon a pillow soft (tr. 23) delivered by the warm, rich bass of Robert Macdonald. A different sort of full tone from Blaze’s, not as dramatic in effect nor as agile in ornamentation, though this dream the loved one agrees to advances only for the lover wake up, doesn’t require high passion. He’s just as effective in varying pace and the song’s fine combination of reflection and action is as vivid as any dream in both voice and theorbo.
A total change of mood for the closing two items shows both brothers in serious vein. First William’s When man for sin thy judgment feels (tr. 26) is a passionate strophic song pleading for spiritual strength after first stripping away all artifice, ‘Man is all vanity’ (1:54) illustrated by profuse ornamentation. What haunts you is the refrain and the extreme leap from ‘strength’ (2:24) virtually in the bass register to ‘before I die’ in coloratura orbit. The second stanza presentation (3:00) is somewhat plainer and humbler as befits the text but the refrain has the same stark melodic contour. This performance begins with an instrumental ‘stanza’ on theorbo which suggests a more reflective piece so the vocalization comes as even more of a surprise.
Finally Henry’s A Pastoral Elegie to the memory of my deare Brother: Cease you jolly shepherds (tr. 27) in which three voices evoke nature’s variety and profusion, then natural phenomena which William could calm before the recognition he has gone for ever, killed on active service for the King at the siege of Chester in 1645. It is generally in strict, close imitation with the harmony becoming more exotic at ‘with saddest notes’ (0:51) through to a poised eliding, a natural smoothing out, into ‘to mourn’ (1:09). A beaming bass ‘calme’ in upper register (2:14) is offset by a snappily dotted rhythm descent by the counter-tenor for ‘the fury of the mind’. For ‘hid from us’ (2:46) a descent to basso profundo to usher in the sequence of tragic descending phrases ‘and never must returne’ (2:52) including a very expressive final sob and slide in the counter-tenor (3:20) before a classic resolution in the soprano (3:23). One can only hope creating such an artistic closure assisted personal acceptance.
What struck me hearing these songs together is that the Lawes brothers belonged to an age of rhetoric, glancing at rather than embracing and probing profound feelings like Dowland did earlier. This was an age more worldly and materialistic but without the assurance we associate with the later Restoration and Purcell. What they were in tune with was the poetry of the time, in particular its inner pulse and progression as well as its attitudes. Melody in itself tended not to be so dominant, so you don’t find yourself remembering the tunes and the sentiments as you do with Dowland and Purcell. What this disc unquestionably does is bring to life English song in the early-mid 17th century because it requires you to come to terms with its distinctive manner and style of performance. In this the skill and, more importantly, the variation in ornamentation brought to bear by Blaze and Kenny’s are exemplary.
-- Michael Greenhalgh, MusicWeb International