Thomas Morley's (1557-1602) First Book of Consort Lessons was one of the first examples of a 'broken consort'. Indeed that term is also known as a "Morley Consort". It consists of a consort comprising instruments from more than one family… both strings and woodwind, for example. A typical combination was three plucked string instruments (lutes and a cittern, say); two bowed instruments (viols); and a recorder or transverse flute. That's what we have in this recording from the seven-person "La Caccia" (which was founded in 1995 in Belgium by its present director and woodwind player, Patrick Denecker). In fact they play: lute, bandore (a lute-like instrument of Spanish origins), cittern (also a stringed instrument in the lute family), treble and bass viols, virginal and recorder. Each instrument had a clearly defined role: the two viols the uppermost and lowest parts; the flute or recorder a midway counterpoint; the lute ornamented the melody; and the bandore and cittern provided a kind of basso continuo in the lower and upper registers respectively.
On this polished and recommendable CD La Caccia plays music for broken consort by no fewer than eight composers, including Morley. These (Philips 1560-1628, Allison fl. 1580-1610, Dowland 1563-1626, Gibbons 1583-1625, Byrd 1539-1623 and Bacheler 1572-1618) were composers who – aside from any reputation they may or may not have had already – were "collected" in Morley's "First Book of Consort Lessons" in 1599 (reprinted at least once – twelve years later: it was successful). This is not to say you're getting a hodge-podge or miscellaneous recital: the 21 items (although there is a 22nd, whose details are not given) played here with such verve and panache by La Caccia are exactly what Morley intended, and were published as such.
This type of consort music was popular as court and domestic entertainment as well as in the theater. It's possible (as the best treatise by Sydney Beck, New York Public Library/Peters, 1959 - no longer available, may confirm) that Morley was actually responding to the success in theaters by aggregating and publishing these works. So perhaps the first benefit you'll feel from this CD is that you have a truly representative collection of the way instrumental writers whose work had already found an audience were working and thinking at the end of the sixteenth century.
La Caccia's approach – evident from the first notes of the well known, Now is the month of May, by Morley himself – is a comprehensive one. The music begins slowly and is "built up" to quite a rich and varied texture by the end of the short (though nothing here is as long as six minutes) piece. Then, the also otherwise often-anthologized The Frog Galliard is full of delicate yet sturdy ornamentation in classic Elizabethan style. La Caccia's half dozen or so sound at times more like sixteen instruments; listen to the texture in de la Tromba Pavin and Sola Soletta! And it's a rich, harmonious and delightful mix that will show the music off, displaying new glories if you're more familiar with these are solo songs.
As the CD progresses, you become more and more "taken" by the precision, expression and lambent care which La Caccia lavishes on this wonderful music… even the less often heard Captaine Pipers Pavin, and indeed each of the four pieces by Dowland are all played with such tenderness and attachment that you seem to be hearing them for the first time. The individual timbres of each instrument as well as the vertical accuracy of the ensemble playing are of very high quality. Lines begin and end with an inevitability worthy of Shakespeare's sonnets; the balance between instruments serves invariably to highlight the invention and technique of each composer. The way that tempi are used to underscore pathos (in Phillips Pavin, for instance) or joviality (as in The Lord Souches Maske) is exemplary.
There is just a touch of perhaps unexpected refinement in the conception (one is glad of the polish in La Caccia's collective execution of the music) that one somehow suspects might not have been there when these pieces first became popular four hundred years ago, and when players were falling over one another to bring something new and different to each successive performance. A kind of classical stasis seems to have taken over from spontaneity and a little of the vigor maybe lost. Gibbons' Lord Salisbury Pavan, for instance, is stately, to be sure. Nor does the playing lack life. Indeed in such pieces as the "Lachrimae" pavan (tr.17) the gentility and urbanity come out over the rough and tumble which one usually associates with consort music intended primarily for dancing, folk music and use as popular ballad.
But this is not to be overstated; nor treated as in any way a drawback: no teeth are drawn, no punches pulled. It's more that La Caccia has taken the music at face value and decided not to bring too much of their own bravado or abandon to each piece, which is savored for what it is. In a way that's refreshing. It shows a kind of respect for the music that is perhaps a little out of fashion in recent years. Once you have listened a few times and know you're hearing a recital of elevated music, the life in la Caccia's interpretations is unstoppable.
Mention must be made, particularly, of the lute playing of Philippe Malfeyt… stylish, perfectly ornamented, sturdy and sensitive. Really everything one looks for in this repertoire. Not that the other members of La Caccia are in any way undeserving of the highest praise. Their approach, skills and individual, flavorful music-making is superb in every respect. the notes are full, authoritative and highly informative, describing, for instance, the rationales behind the choices of instruments and scoring – and, significantly, the musicology which reassembled the "The First Book of Consort Lessons" in the last century, particularly the reconstruction of and for the bass viol.
So this is a disc of Elizabethan consort music just a little out of the ordinary. It's accomplished, elegant, well-conceived and excellently brought off. The music-making is nothing less than ideal and it can be wholeheartedly recommended.
Copyright © 2007, Mark Sealey