Sunday 15 January 2017

A treatie of humane love: Martin Peerson's setting of Fulke Greville's Caelica

A Treatie of Humane Love - Martin Peerson
Martin Peerson Mottects or Grave Chamber Musique; I Fagiolini, Fretwork, James Johnstone; REGENT
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jan 8 2017
Star rating: 4.0

Martin Peerson's collection of consort songs shown to be far more than just historical interest

If Martin Peerson's collection Mottects or Grave Chamber Musique is known at all it is for its historical interest. It is one of the (if not the) earliest use of figured bass in England, the figured organ part is the first printed organ score in England, and it is the first (and last) major English songbook of the pre-Commonwealth period devoted to the texts of one poet. But this new recording from I Fagiolini, Fretwork and James Johnstone on Regent Records (released 20 January 2017) aims to re-capture the work's musical interest.

Peerson's songs set texts taken from Fulke Greville's Caelica a huge collection of poems written throughout Greville's life. Sir Fulke Greville (1554-1628) was a contemporary of Sir Philip Sidney, and was known to Peerson and may have patronised the composer. Peerson's songs were not published until Fulke Greville's death in 1628, and the printed score shows signs of haste, as well as having a final lament for Greville added (to words of unknown provenance).

This recording uses a new edition of the songs by Richard Rastall (who also contributes an excellent booklet essay).

Sir Fulke Greville
Greville's Caelica is a lyric sequence of 109 poems, beginning as a set of love poem but gradually turning more complex. Peerson (or Greville) selected 13 poems and turned them into 21 songs. these are consort songs written for five singers, five viols and chamber organ. The songs vary between full (using all five singers) and verse where individuals get solos with full just in the tutti sections. The performers use a pool of seven singers and six viols, the line up varying according to scoring:

I Fagiolini: Clare Wilkinson, Eleanor Minney (mezzo-sopranos), Robert Hollingworth (counter-tenor), Hugo Hymas (tenor), Greg Skimore (baritone), Jimmy Holliday, Charles Gibbs (basses).
Fretwork: Asako Miroka, Richard Boothby (treble viols), Susanna Pell, Reiko Ichise (tenor viols), Emily Ashton, Sam Stalden (bass viols).

The work only gives up its charms gradually. For a start the title is a little off putting but in 17th century usage mottects simply means music of the most carefully crafted kind, grave means not frivolous, and chamber music automatically included voices. Then, Greville's poems are textually rather dense; Peerson seems to have chosen the more directly lyrical ones but his polyphonic style of writing means the words are tricky to pick up. The text of the second song is a good example:

Beautie, her couer is, the eyes true pleasure;
In honours fame she liues, the the ears sweet musicke,
Excesse of wonder growes from her true measure;
Her worth is passions wound, and passions physicke,
    From her true heart cleare springs of wisdome flowe,
    Which imag'd in her words and deeds, men know.

This is made even more difficult by I Fagiolini's using period pronunciation, which is essential to make the rhymes and rhythms of Greville's texts work. You very much need to follow this with the text in front of you. That said, I did wonder whether the singers could have made more of the texts, as it is the performance is very much about line and blend. The singers are part of the chamber music.

Nowadays we think in terms of instrumentalists accompanying singers, but in music of this era the singers and instrumentalists functioned on an equal footing. And this is what I Fagiolini and Fretwortk successfully bring off, giving us a sober intertwining of voice and instrument. There are lighter moments, but the prevailing atmosphere is serious and thoughtful. We can almost imagine Peerson and a group of performers gathered in Sir Fulke Greville's great chamber to play the music to him, so he could enjoy the complex interweaving of lines which gave his complex poetry new life.

Martin Peerson (c1572-1651) - Mottects or Grave Chamber Musique (1630) [72.53]
I Fagiolini
James Johnstone (organ)
Recorded 21-24 February 2016 a The National Centre for Early Music, York

Released on 20 January 2017
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