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Sunday, October 05, 2008

A Superb New Recording from Seattle

William LAWES (1602-1645)

The Harp Consorts (complete)

Consort 8 in G, Paven and divisions [8:08]
Consort 7 in G, Air [2:10]
Consort 3 in G, Allemande, Courante, Courante, Sarabande
Consort 11 in d, Fantasie [4:07]
Consort 4 in d, Air, Air, Courante, Sarabande [6:30]
Consort 9 in D, Paven and divisions [9:22]
Consort 5 in D, Allemande, Courante, Courante, Sarabande [6:39]
Consort 6 in D, Allemande, Courante, Courante, Sarabande [8:28]
Consort 10 in g, Paven and divisions [8:40]
Consort 2 in g, Air, Courante, Courante, Sarabande [6:58]
Consort 1 in g, Allemande, Courante, Courante, Sarabande [6:08]
Duo for Guitare et Harpe [6:08] (with Alman by René Meangeau) [3:49]

Maxine Eilander, (harp)
Les Voix Humaines
Stephen Stubbs, (theorbo and guitar)
David Greenberg, (baroque violin)
Susie Napper and Margaret Little, (violas da gamba)

Recorded at the Église Saint-Augustin de Mirabel, Quebec, Canada in December 2002 and April 2006.

ATMA ACD2 2372 [76:26]

The so-called “Harp Consorts” of William Lawes, court musician to England’s King Charles I, stand as unique examples of an elegant genre begun in the British court, and tragically ended by the English Civil War, a debacle that claimed the lives of both King and composer. The works stem from a tradition of music for a mixed and specified group of instruments, often called the “broken consort” that first appeared in 1599 with the Consort Lessons of Thomas Morley. Lawes adaptation of Morley’s precedent places the harp in two roles: one as a harmonic instrument placed in the center of the texture as in the Fantasies and Pavens; or as a melodic instrument in dialogue with the violin and the theorbo, the harp’s right hand providing an independent and contrapuntal voice. The debate as to whether an Irish single or French triple harp was the intended instrument for this elegant music has been lengthy and heated, and I will leave it to you, dear reader to explore this question further in Stephen Stubbs’ thorough and informative program note.

With the arrival in England in 1629 of Queen Henriette Marie, all things French became the rage. This was particularly true in the fields of music and dance, and we see that these suites are on the whole collections of French dance music. Surely these works accompanied actual dancing at the court. Nonetheless, the music is of such an elegant nature that it must also have been enjoyed in intimate chamber settings for its own sake. These instruments combine to make such a sweet and gentle tone, that listeners, regardless of their experience with early music, cannot help but come away satisfied.

Lucky are we indeed then that we have such a fine practitioner of the harp as Maxine Eilander, and more fortunate still are we to have her team with her renowned husband Stephen Stubbs and their musical friends to seek out, recreate and re-establish this repertoire in its first complete recording. The balance and nuance of this outstanding ensemble is as refined as the workings of s Swiss time piece. Ever mindful of his or her role in the weave of this musical fabric, each player seems to understand as by second nature when to play out, when to lead rhythmically or when to take a back seat, waiting for his or her turn to come again to the fore.

The music itself is packed with variety, shifting easily from slow, graceful and sometimes mournful Pavanes and Fantasies to the more spritely dances of the suites. Interestingly, the ensemble has chosen to group the works by key center instead of by their (one supposes) chronological order. One might wonder how the contrast of keys would affect a complete listening of well over seventy minutes.

One of the biggest appeals of this performance lies in the music’s ability to function in both background and foreground. You can put it on and go about your business, or you can listen intently and find a wealth of fascinating melody and interplay between the instruments. Regardless of how you choose to listen, this fully packed disc is a garland of delights. After you this charmer, you’ll certainly want to explore further examples of consort music from this period by the likes of Coprario, Purcell, Dowland, Jenkins and Hume. There are abundant recordings of this music for you to enjoy. But start here. This music making is as close to perfection as you’ll ever get.

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