Wednesday 9 October 2019

17th century Playlist: from toe-tapping to plangently melancholy, Ed Lyon & Theatre of the Ayre

17th Century Playlist - Ed Lyon - Delphian
17th Century Playlist - Francesco Cavalli, Stefano Landi, Pierre Guedron, Nicholas Lanier, Etienne Moulinie, Giovanni Battista Fontana, Michel Lambert, Antoine Boesset, Sebastien Le Camus, and John Dowland; Ed Lyon, Theatre of the Ayre; DELPHIAN
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 9 October 2019 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
A mixtape of 17th century ear-worms, from the toe-tapping to the plangently melancholy, in highly engaging performances

Tenor Ed Lyon is one of those performers who seem to pop up in a wide variety of music from 17th century opera [Cavalli's L'Ormindo at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, see my review] to contemporary [Thomas Adès' The Exterminating Angel at the Royal Opera House, see my review], Mozart singspiel [Die Entführung aus dem Serail at The Grange Festival, see my review] to Broadway musical [Lerner and Loewe's My Fair Lady, with the full Robert Russell Bennett orchestrations, at the Chatelet Theatre, see my review], and Britten [Turn of the Screw at Garsington this Summer] and he is currently Orpheus in Offenbach's operetta Orpheus in the Underworld at English National Opera [see my review]. Always musical and always interesting, he is a versatile performer always worth listening to.

Judging by this new disc, 17th Century Playlist on the Delphian label, it is in the earlier repertoire that his heart really lies. Along with Elizabeth Kenny's Theatre of the Ayre, Ed Lyon has devised a recital of 17th century song, Italian, French and English, which engages and delights, small scale pieces which are big on personality and style, by Francesco Cavalli, Stefano Landi, Pierre Guedron, Nicholas Lanier, Etienne Moulinie, Giovanni Battista Fontana, Michel Lambert, Antoine Boesset, Sebastien Le Camus, and John Dowland.

Despite the rather modish title, what we have here is an exploration of an art relatively under represented on disc, the intimate 17th century song. Most of these pieces were written for particular patrons, Kings, Cardinals and more, to be performed in saloons and chambers by a small group of musicians. The works represent personal taste, the taste of the patron, and it is not surprising that Lyon and Kenny have been able to put together such a toe tapping selection.

The thread running through these pieces is that most are 'ear worms', whether fast or slow they are based on motifs which holds us by the ears (to use a 17th century phrase which Elizabeth Kenny's lively and informative CD booklet essay elucidates for us). Nothing is sexed up or re-orchestrated for modern taste, it doesn't need to be.
The works here were designed for virtuosi to show off their various talents, and thanks to developments in music and musical notation there is complexity too. The use of the guitar is quite common (thanks to the Spanish influence in Naples, where the two kingdoms were linked) and using mensural notation meant that instrumentalists could play along with the guitar and add complex secondary lines. So we get pieces which are full of interest, lively contrapuntal lines combined with rich textures. And not just the guitar, we have the lute and theorbo of course, but also the triple harp and the Irish harp. This latter has brass strings and was brought to the English court by Irish harpists, and it adds another thread of colour and texture to the accompaniment.

We start with a trio of pieces all based on those fast, ground-bass style 17th century rhythms which always get the toe tapping, as soon as they start you cannot help but smile. Then things get slower and more thoughtful. Throughout, Lyon and Kenny keep things varied, there is space for John Dowland's Time stands still and Etienne Moulinie's haunting Vos mespirs chaque jour alongside livelier pieces, and we move flexibly between France, England and Italy.

So who were these composers? Some we recognise, and one or two of the pieces are familiar, yet many of the composers are little more than names. We open with a piece from Cavalli's unperformed (and rather raunchily near the knuckle) Eliogabolo, written for the Venetian opera house. Stefano Landi's smaller scale pieces were written for Venice too. Landi trained as a boy soprano in Rome, and his books of canzonette were often dedicated to various Cardinals, whilst his brother was in the service of the Medici, playing the harp, so we can imagine this music in a Cardinal's saloon, a few instrumentalists including a harp and perhaps a singer from the Sistine Chapel. Learned, intelligent music and lyrics, but toe tapping stuff too, it flatters the patron and delights the ear. We also get an instrumental piece by Giovanni Battista Fontana, one of many he produced which were intended for flexible scoring, 'for violin or cornett, bassoon, chitarone, violoncino or similar other instrument', it was the music itself that mattered.

Over in France the approach was slightly different, the French composers took a very specific view of the way they set the French language, but the results had a commonality. Pierre Guedron started out as a boy in the chapel of the Cardinal of Lorraine and then moved to the Royal chapel becoming surintendant des musiques de la chambre du roi, whilst Antoine Boesset was his son-in-law and also at the cultured court of King Louis XIII (both composers contributed to the ballets du cour, as did the king himself). And Etienne Moulinie and Michel Lambert were amongst the next generation of composers at the court of Louis XIII and his son.

Over in England, lutenist John Dowland was one of the prime composers of song of the time. Whilst he performed for Queen Elizabeth I (notably on one occasion in 1582 under a tree at Sudeley Castle with the singer under an adjoining tree), he never got a post at court (his being a Catholic cannot have helped) and his career was in Denmark working for King Christian IV and then in Jacobean London under King James I. From a French Huguenot family, Nicholas Lanier was the first composer to hold the title of Master of the Kings Musick (under King Charles I). He had links to the Irish harpist Cormac MacDermott, hence the inclusion of the Irish harp on the disc. And he wasn't just a musician, it was Lanier on his visits to Mantua who arranged for King Charles I to buy the Duke of Mantua's famous picture collection. [Intriguingly his uncle was Alphonse Lanier, who married Emilia Bassano Lanier, the Dark Lady of Shakespeare's Sonnets, and a musician in her own right, see the family tree on Wikipedia].

Ed Lyon has quite a vibrant voice, and one which he uses to colour the music. This is not a pale, bleached sound, but a rich one which is aptly complemented by the playing of the Theatre of the Ayre. Lyon is not frightened of using vibrato for expressive purposes, and does not shy away from making a bigger sound. But he also has a stylish turn of phrase (with a fine array of ornaments), and is able to bring that discreet sense of virtuosity to the pieces which is very necessary. The recording brings the performers quite close, there is an engaging chamber quality to the disc which is emphasised if you listen on headphones.

17th Century Playlist
Songs by Francesco Cavalli, Stefano Landi, Pierre Guedron, Nicholas Lanier, Etienne Moulinie, Giovanni Battista Fontana, Michel Lambert, Antoine Boesset, Sebastien Le Camus, and John Dowland
Ed Lyon (tenor)
Theatre of the Ayre (Elizabeth Kenny - lute, guitar, theorbo, Siobhan Armstrong - triple harp, Irish harp, Reiko Ichise - viola da gamba, Rodolfo Richter & Jane Gordon - violins)
Recorded 27-30 January 2019, St Martin's Church, Salisbury
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