in: Reviews

June 20, 2014

Not-So-Cavalier Consort Music

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The Society for Historically Informed Performance (SOHIP) opened its 28th summer series this week with three performances by the Cavalier Consort, playing English consort music from the mid-. This is not the Virginia-based group founded in 1994 (which seems to be no longer active), but a new assemblage of Boston-based musicians, some of whose names will be familiar to listeners from previous area early-music concerts. I was able to attend the third performance last night at Emmanuel Church’s Lindsey Chapel; this program which also took place earlier this week in Weston and Andover, included three works for strings and keyboard by William Lawes, two by Matthew Locke, another two by John Jenkins, and one by Christopher Simpson. A short keyboard piece by Christopher Gibbons (son of the better-known Orlando) served as prelude to one of the Locke works.

The consort takes its name from the aristocratic royalists who opposed the parliamentary Puritans during England’s Civil War and Commonwealth. Of the composers on the program, only William Lawes could himself be called a Cavalier, killed in military action in 1645. The others rather worked for Cavalier patrons or in the churches whose choirs were closed and organs destroyed during the period of Puritan dominance. Today, of course, the word “cavalier” has an ambiguous ring, and although making for a catchy ensemble name it also connotes accurately the alternately decadent and reactionary culture that produced the music in question. (The morally ambivalent position of those who served the Cavaliers is nicely captured in The Baroque Cycle, Neal Stephenson’s eight-book series of historical science-fiction novels focusing on one Daniel Waterhouse, ex-Puritan natural philosopher and founder of the Massachusetts Bay Colony Institute of Technologickal Arts.)

Although English music from the Elizabethan period and from the time of Purcell has long been popular, compositions from the intervening decades are less familiar. One reason is that the writing for the string instruments becomes more varied and challenging. Another is that the style, although to some degree incorporating the catchy tunes and rhythms that emanated from newly Baroque France and Italy, can also be rather esoteric, laced with idiosyncratic chromaticism, asymmetrical phrasing, and a discreet quirkiness that English composers seem to have favored, doubtless reflecting the preferences of their aristocratic patrons. Although some of this music tends toward a violinistic idiom, the lines usually remain suitable to the less extroverted viol (viola da gamba), the composers frequently leaving the choice of instrument unspecified. Much of this repertory also lacks true basso continuo parts: in place of the improvised figured bass of later Baroque music, many pieces instead include written-out parts for keyboard, lute, or even harp. The result is a fascinating and often deeply expressive style, but one that was intended for quiet contemplation in intimate chamber settings. Performers are still grappling with difficult questions of how to interpret the scores and make them speak in a modern concert setting.

The five Cavaliers successfully communicated the special character of this music to a sparse but enthusiastic audience. The music, written for two to five distinct parts, was played in effectively varied scorings, sometimes with violins and sometimes with treble viols on the upper lines. One or two bass viols and organ or harpsichord provided the lower parts. The organ was a small chamber instrument eminently suited to this repertory. I was not, however, convinced of the effectiveness of the small harpsichord (actually a virginal) for this music, its lovely but quiet sound tended to disappear beneath the strings—a particular problem when the keyboard had its own written-out melodic line. Nor was I convinced that the sometimes acerbic sounds of the organ, a product of its meantone temperament, were the positive feature they were made out to be in the otherwise illuminating program notes, whose remarks on tuning seem not to reflect an important article by John Koster in the 2012 Organ Yearbook.

I was nevertheless impressed by the very fine sonority of the ensemble in the opening “Newark Seidge” (or siege) by Jenkins. This is a pair of extended dance movements which, to judge from their surprising sad endings in the minor mode, must have commemorated the surrender of King Charles I in 1646 and not a royalist victory (as we were told in the notes). As affecting as the end was, however, I might have hoped for more demonstrative playing of the trumpet calls imitated in all parts through most of the piece.

Something similar could be said of a number of other performances on the program. Possibly it was the chapel acoustic, perhaps the short bows and off-the-shoulder playing of the violins (as in old-time country fiddling), maybe a certain stiffness or “notey-ness” in the execution of the written-out ornamentation, that prevented the livelier pieces from being as engaging as they might have been. Some of the quieter pieces, too, especially the two so-called fantasia-suites by Lawes, could have benefited from more purposeful or rhetorical shaping, with greater communication between the players. Certain cadences seemed to need more thought; the irregular phrasing of these pieces requires careful parsing, and although a sudden ending can be effective, there is a danger of leaving the impression that the music has simply stopped.

I hasten to add, however, that these problems, all minor, also affect performances of this music by more established ensembles. The final number, from Lawes’s famous Royal Consort, achieved some powerful moments under the assured playing of Emily Dahl on the top violin part. James Williamson, performing on a very sonorous bass gamba, imparted real life and beauty to a number of pieces, especially a “set” for two bass viols (without keyboard) by Locke, in which he was joined capably by David Hunt. Even when I felt that the extraordinary harmonies of some pieces, such as Locke’s E-minor “set” from the Little Consort, did not receive their full due, I was nevertheless glad for the opportunity to experience this music in a live performance. I certainly look forward to discovering what these players, all clearly thoughtful and deeply involved in this music, will make of it in future concerts. They deserve continuing support, and I hope to hear them again.

See related article/interview here.

David Schulenberg’s book The Music of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach will be published later this year by the University of Rochester Press. He has also written books on the music of W. F. Bach and the keyboard music of J. S. Bach, as well as the textbook Music of the Baroque. A performer on harpsichord, clavichord, and fortepiano, he teaches at Wagner College and at The Juilliard School, both in New York City; his website is here.

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