Notes and Editorial Reviews
For those (like this reviewer) who were still in short pants when the first of these recordings appeared, David Munrow’s work has acquired something close to mythical status, akin perhaps to that of Jimi Hendrix in the realm of pop music. Like Hendrix, Munrow was a charismatic figure, a self-taught virtuoso whose public performances frequently caught fire; like Hendrix, he died tragically young; and like Hendrix, Munrow was a trail-blazer with a difference, in that many different schools of Britain’s early music scene can legitimately claim him as an inspiration, if not a direct mentor. The list of young talent Munrow banded round him reads like a roll-call of today’s most influential musicians: James Bowman, Charles Brett, Rogers Covey-Crump, Martin Hill, Christopher Hogwood, Philip Pickett to name but a few. Towards the end of his life, Munrow began to concentrate on fifteenth-century sacred polyphony, with a cappella, one-to-a-part performances (in “The Art of the Netherlands” HMV, 11/76 – reissued at mid-price on EMI). In this, he anticipated the emergence of groups like the Hilliard Ensemble; but one need only listen to the disc of dance suites, most of which was recorded earlier in his career, to sense the debt owed by the instrumental groups that emerged even later, like the New London Consort. When David Munrow named his series of radio broadcasts after the Pied Piper, he was describing himself.
All these recordings were made in the astonishingly short period between January 1971 and the end of 1975. They fall into two broad groups, the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries (“The Art of Courtly Love” and Dufay’s Mass), and the sixteenth and early seventeenth (“Monteverdi’s Contemporaries”, Praetorius and the dance music on Testament). The earlier discs were recorded in 1972-3, a couple of years before “the Art of the Netherlands”. The latter is in some ways the more polished collection, but there is such tremendous excitement on so many tracks of “Courtly Love” (listen to the progressively more Hendrixian inflexions of the Istampitta Tre fontane) that one happily overlooks the occasional wrinkle; besides, Munrow’s experiments with instrumental combinations turn out some real gems. The ‘fourteenth-century avant-garde’ section is especially fine in this respect (the combination of tenor and two crumhorns in the ‘Phiton’ pieces, for example). Although much has been re-recorded since, a good number of Munrow’s first performances remain unsurpassed....
It is a real joy to welcome these essential recordings to the CD repertory. Had David Munrow lived (he would have been only 54 this year), there would have been more, so much more. That he himself chose otherwise is all the more poignant and sadly ironic, for joy in making music of any period, beyond the exotic instruments and the scholarship, is the overriding message of these discs. What more can one say?
-- Fabrice Fitch, Gramophone [9/1996]