John Milton (1608-1674) was one of the English Renaissance's most musical poets. Like Wordsworth's, his long lyrical lines affect us somewhat in the way that melody itself does. Now we know why: on this gem of a CD from Regent, specialists in music of the period, Fretwork, Sophie Yates (virginals) and countertenor Michael Chance present half a dozen instrumental pieces by the poet's father, John Milton (1562-1647), together with a larger selection of mostly short works by contemporary, Martin Peerson.
Milton, the father, was such a success as a scrivener (a scribe paid by officials or municipalities for their competency to write, record and perform what we should now call secretarial duties) that he could afford to support his younger son, the poet. Composition of the fresh, varied, tuneful and beautiful music which we hear on this CD was a secondary pursuit – but obviously a very worthwhile one. Peerson (c.1572-1651), though, was a professional musician and cleric, also associated with St Paul's Cathedral in London. His work is better known; he was the more prolific of the two… the are are almost two dozen CDs that contain music by Peerson – though none exclusively. Indeed, this CD focuses on the delightful music of these two unjustly neglected musicians in a most welcome way; although it may well be bought initially because of the connection with the Milton of Paradise Lost, there are so many welcome surprises and pleasures on listening to it that you come away marveling at the inventiveness and depth of this later generation of English instrumental composers.
This is due in no small part to the expertise and energy of Fretwork, Yates (and Chance). This is music – as the title of the CD suggests – that was written above all for collective performance, where the impetus came from the communal act of making music in concert. The aura of Peerson in particular is that of a "miniaturist" (The Fall of the Leafe [tr.23] is a good example of this type of writing). He concentrates on a focused, figurative "episode" or experience. Yet with it comes a concomitant depth and distillation to which these musicians respond very well indeed. It would be easy to read too much into such an approach by either composer; or fall between the two stools of minimizing their importance, or compensating for its stature perhaps perceived as diminutive in some way.
Most of the other pieces here are either Fantasias or dance movements, as one would expect from the instrumental forces and background of the composers. Into each of these Fretwork and Yates infuse just the right amount of life and sensitivity. There is never the hint of formula, tiredness or routine. Nor, though, is there any attempt to map spurious spontaneity onto what remain "set pieces" for all their originality and inherent momentum. This, again, is due to the performers' thorough understanding of the circumstances for which this music was written and under which it was performed… quasi-canonic interchanges, dialogs between (sub)groups of instruments facing one another physically – and, probably, for the sheer joy of celebrating what a small group of performers and enthusiasts could do. The producers of this CD have had to reconstruct some of its music because some parts were thus incomplete.
But you wouldn't know it from the progress of the music on the CD: they've done an excellent, transparent job. The playing is smooth without being nonchalant, sonorous with a keenness and sense of attack; and yet as considered as it needs to be. Nor (as has been hinted) is there any feeling of repetition or similarity: each piece is different. Each has its own little world and, for all the palette of strings (or virginal) is necessarily as specific as it is. A remarkably wide world is created and explored. Fretwork and co are well aware of what can be found in each piece. And they express it all very well indeed. Admittedly they're in their element with this repertoire. But they bring a ruddy, bracing and invigorating approach that works very well.
The acoustics (Westwood Manor, Wiltshire – the virginal pieces; York National Centre for Early Music – Fretwork) of the hour-long recording are spacious without being over-reverberant. They each create just the right atmosphere for the above-mentioned sense of discourse and intimacy. The booklet that comes with the CD is informative, well-illustrated, contains details of the viols used (all copies) and caps off what is a truly special and welcome addition to the repertoire. If this area of early Baroque string and keyboard music interests you, then you should have no hesitation in buying it immediately.
Copyright © 2012, Mark Sealey.