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CD Review

The Flaming Fire

  • John Black:
  • Musick Fyne
  • My Delyt
  • Lytill Blak
  • James Lauder: My Lord of Marche Paven
  • William Byrd: The Noble Famous Queen
  • John Wilson: Wilson's Fantasie
  • Robert Johnson:
  • A Knell of Johnson
  • Almaygne: Mr. Johnson
  • Anthony Holborne: Pavan Paradizo
  • John Bennet:
  • Eliza, her name gives honour
  • Venus birds
  • Renaldo Paradiso: A Fancy
  • Thomas Tallis: The Third Tune from Archbishop Parker's Psalter
  • Burns-Einhorn
  • Ca the Yowes
  • Songs of Love and Betrayal
  • Lament of Mary Queen of Scots
  • A Rose-bud By My Early Walk
  • Ye Banks and Braes
  • Anonymous 16th Century:
  • Come, my Children dere
  • In a garden so greene
  • The flaming fire
  • Hutchesoun s Galyiard
  • Tourdion
  • Ane lessone upon the First Psalme
  • Psalm 18
  • Je suis dés;éritée
  • Our father God celestial
Ryland Angel, countertenor/tenor
Dongsok Shin, virginal
MSR MS1490
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Thoroughly to enjoy every nuance of this delightful CD by the viol quartet, Parthenia, it would help to have a fondness for Scotland, understand its turbulent history and appreciate in particular the tensions which spun around Mary Queen of Scots – at times completely out of the control of protagonists Scottish and English. But these are hardly essential. Even without such background you can happily return to the 65 minutes of short, self-contained, yet far from miniature vocal and intimate instrumental music for its profundity, concentration and insight into the concerns which enveloped a generation or two of Scots and English in the second half of the Sixteenth Century.

Mary Stuart lived from 1542 to 1587; whilst in part a pawn (she was married off at 16) she was nevertheless too powerful (she did actually rule Scotland for six years) for her enemies (including England's Elizabeth I) to allow her to live. Catholic, Mary lived at a time when religious allegiances (including the ascendancy of Protestantism in Scotland under John Knox) determined life and death. Mary fled to England for Elizabeth's protection; it was not forthcoming and – after years of imprisonment – she was executed at the age of 45. This CD examines the music at court, in the kirks and crofts, dances and – significantly – music of love and betrayal by a dozen or so known and anonymous composers of the time. It successfully presents a panorama of the concerns and preoccupations of composers against such a background.

The earliest music here is probably that of James Lauder, who worked in Mary's court. The arrangements by modern (b. 1952) American composer, Richard Einhorn, of lyrics by Robert Burns (who of course lived two centuries after Mary Queen of Scots, from 1759 to 1796) are surely more fillers than truly integral to the period. They are not strong pieces, but for some will add yet another dimension to the sentiments which coursed through those alive when Mary was betrayed. The familiar (Byrd, Johnson (a Scot who spent most of his time in the South), Holborne and Tallis) are mixed intelligently with the less so (David Peebles, fl. 1530-1576, John Bennet, fl. 1599-1614 and Renaldo Paradiso, d.1570). Contrast on this CD is as much of a virtue as is the understated and dynamic yet subdued instrumental playing – of the strings in particular.

Parthenia was founded in 2009 and has specialized in music of this period. Their playing is lively and insightful; it suits both the particularity of any one piece and the variety of what they all offer when sequenced like this. They bring out well the serious behind the "Fancy". And bridge the apparently occasional (Lauder's My Lord of Marche Paven[tr.6], for instance) with the more reflective (Byrd's The Noble Famous Queen [tr.17]). The players of Parthenia do not attempt to "survey" or instruct. Rather, at the end of listening, you have a good sense of how contemporaries responded to the crises in life as well as to the constants.

Countertenor and composer Ryland Angel sings. Although he has a good pedigree in opera and recital from Baroque to contemporary, he seems at times to have been seduced in places here into a twangier, more folk-inspired delivery with slurred vowels and slightly wavering notes that, while they would certainly pass muster in 1960s folk, stand out here. Syllables are slipped to make the attainment of a note easier. That jars. Intrusive at times – perhaps mainly because unexpected and somewhat out of place – the occurrences of these lapses of judgement are fairly limited and need not rule the CD out. What might do so is where Angel clearly falls short (for example in the anonymous Psalm 18 setting and Our father God celestial [tr.s 13,15]) as his undoubted sensitivity and tenderness turn to harshness. Equally disappointing is a misplaced "delicacy"; preciousness, almost: although clearly art songs, there would surely have been more… brawn in their delivery when sung four centuries ago. Dongsok Shin's virginal playing has none of these drawbacks.

The recording (made in September 2013 at the Dorothy Young Center of the Arts at Drew University, Madison New Jersey) is not so close as to be claustrophobic. The music is presented as music, not a performance. This works well, given the likely environment in which most of it must have been first performed. We sense that we are at arm's length to the performers; and that they are aware of our presence. Yet the necessary detachment for the works to take their course is maintained at all times. The notes that come with the CD explain the historical context, then concentrate on each composer and how they fit into that background. As a collection of enticing, beautiful and well-interwoven pieces this is well worth looking into. There is room for reservations; but it's an enjoyable collection illustrative of the music of its time.

Copyright © 2015, Mark Sealey