Sunday 24 March 2013

Maurice Greene's Amoretti

Maurice Greene (1696 - 1755) is one of that generation of English composers who grew up in Handel's shadow. Handel, a composer who seems to have been the least collegiate of men, was hardly the man to encourage younger composers and in fact Greene is perhaps best known for the fact that Handel disliked him. 

On this disc harpsichordist Luke Green and tenor Benjamin Hulett along with theorbo player Giangiacomo Pinardi have recorded Maurice Greene's settings of 25 of Spenser's Amoretti, effectively one of the earliest English song cycles, producing a disc of great charm.

Greene was a high flyer in the English musical establishment; organist of St Paul's Cathedral in 1718, organist and composer of the Chapel Royal in 1727 and finally Master of the King's Music in 1735. But the Royal family preferred Handel, and despite Greene's position as composer of the Chapel Royal, it was Handel who got to write music for the lion's share of the great state occasions.

Greene was a founding member of the Academy of Vocal (later Ancient) Music in 1726. In 1731, after controversy over a madrigal by Lotti being presented under Bononcini's name, the academy split (Some authorities suggest Greene's involvement in the deception/controversy). Greene along with others founded a new musical society the Apollo Academy based at the Devil's Tavern in the Strand. Here the members, including Greene, Festing and Boyce, performed a wide variety of secular music.

This seems to have increased Greene's interest in secular music and he produced a sequence of oratorios and songs. Greene's settings of Spenser's Amoretti were written in 1738 and were almost certainly performed at the Apollo Academy.

Spencer's Amoretti were a sequence of 80 sonnets published in 1595, but a complete edition of Spenser's works were printed in London in 1715. The sonnets describe the poet's wooing of his future wife, Elizabeth Boyle and Greene's selection of them preserves this narrative arc. Greene's settings belong to a general interest in setting major English writers which developed partly in the wake of Handel's settings of Dryden, Milton and Congreve. In style they are closer, however, to Arne and to Haydn's English canzonets.

Greene has taken some care to ensure the primacy of the voice and the text. There are no significant instrumental ritornelli and many of the songs start with just the voice. That said, Greene is highly responsive to the text and the instruments participate in much of the word painting. In many ways, with their voice-led narrative nature, the songs remind me of the later Swedish composer Carl Michael Bellamn's Fredman's Epistles and Songs.

Greene opens with the final sonnet, thus setting the scene for the chase to come. Rather interestingly, the final three songs all form a sequence on love in absence so that the cycle does end on a dying fall. Along the way Spenser refers to real events in his courtship, and it is these such as the poet and his lover writing their names on the sand, her wearing a laurel leaf or a net in her her, which give the cycle its immediacy and appeal. The songs are varied in style and Greene tends to divide each one into contrasting sections. But these are in no way bravura virtuoso pieces; a modern equivalent would be far closer to Sting sitting down with a guitar, rather than an operatic tenor in virtuoso display.

Greene's setting of Spenser's text sometimes seems to struggle slightly, as if the great Elizabethan poet's complex sonnets did not quite match Greene's lyric impulse; there are places where there seem to be slightly too many words for Greene's comfort. What we are seeing is English composers learning to develop a tradition and style of setting English in the face of foreign domination.

Benjamin Hulett is entirely admirable and rather captivating in the way he projects the text, but ensures a firm and expressive vocal line. He is recorded quite closely, with the voice rather dominant and the harpsichord and theorbo a little in the background. Listening to all 25 in a sitting, I did occasionally wish for a slightly more confidential, confiding tone from Hulett. In style he is very much in song recital mode. But within these parameters he delights with his melifluous tenor and constantly flexible vocal line.

Green and Pinardi accompany admirably, colouring and varying the accompaniment according to the context. But I wish they were stronger in the balance, their sound seems just a little too recessed.

The CD booklet comes with a highly informative note as well as full texts for the songs.

This is a disc of considerable charm, recorded with great affection and intelligence by Hulett, Green and Pinardi. Whilst many people will enjoy this discovery of English songs, I do hope that it also spurs singers on to including them in recitals.

Maurice Greene (1696 - 1755) - Amoretti (1738) [66:17]
1 - After so long a race [3:44]
2 - Happy ye leaves [2:10]
3 - Faire Eyes [2:44]
4 - Ye tradefull merchants [2:02]
5 - The rolling wheele [2:02]
6 - The merry Cuckow [2:20]
7 - How long shall this like dying life endure [2:54]
8 - The Laurell leafe [3:01]
9 - Like as a ship [3:31]
10 - What guile is this [1:59]
11 - Arion [2:33]
12 - Sweet smile [3:26]
13 - Marke when the smiles [1:41]
14 - The Love which me so cruelly tormenteth [3:19]
15 - Trust not the treason of those smiling lookes [2:33]
16 - Fayre cruell [2:29]
17 - Faire yee be sure [2:14]
18 - Thrise happy she [1:52]
19 - After long stormes [2:09]
20 - Like as a huntsman [1:26]
21 - Fresh Spring [3:10]
22 - One day I wrote her name upon the strand [3:55]
23 - Lacking my love [2:18]
24 - Since I did leave the presence of my love [2:44]
25 - Like as the Culver [3:46]

Benjamin Hulett (tenor)
Luke Green (harpsichord)
Giangiacomo Pinardi (theorbo)

Recorded at Britten Studio, Snape Maltings, Suffolk, 20 - 22 February 2012
NAXOS 8.572891 1CD [66.17]

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