Wednesday 13 January 2021

A beguiling disc: Aberdene 1662 from Maria Valdmaa & Mikko Perkola on ERP explores songs from the only book of secular music published in Scotland in the 17th century

Aberdene 1662, Songs from John Forbes' Songs and Fancies; Maria Valdmaa, Mikko Perkola; ERP

Aberdene 1662
, Songs from John Forbes' Songs and Fancies; Maria Valdmaa, Mikko Perkola; ERP

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 11 January 2021 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
Engagingly refreshing: An Estonian soprano and Finnish gamba player collaborate on performing a selection of songs from John Forbes Songs and Fancies, published in Aberdeen in 1662

Generally, music-making in 17th century Scotland rarely features very highly in music histories. Despite 17th-century Scots having a relatively high level of education, the combination of the Calvinist Church of Scotland's attitude to music making in church and the fact that King James VI of Scotland moved his court to London after being made King of England meant that there was neither elaborate church music nor significant domestic music making. But there were exceptions to this general view.

A new disc from Estonian Record Productions (ERP), Aberdene 1662 with soprano Maria Valdmaa and viola da gamba player Mikko Perkola features eleven songs from Song and Fancies a book published by John Forbes and son in Aberdeen in 1662. This was the first and only collection of secular music to be published in Scotland in the 17th century, and revised editions were published in 1666 and 1682, so it was clearly popular. We don't actually know which Forbes (elder or younger) was actually responsible for the book.

Aberdene 1662 - Mikko Perkola - recording session at Arvo Pärt Centre, Estonia
Aberdene 1662 - Mikko Perkola
recording session at Arvo Pärt Centre, Estonia
In the 17th century Aberdeen was home to two universities, King's Colelge and Marischal College, yet was also far from other urban centres and universities. The atmosphere seems to have been relatively conservative, and there are some indications that Catholicism survived longer here. In most areas of Scotland, congregations in the Kirk simply sang metrical psalms using twelve 'Common Tunes', but a more complex musical practice seems to have survived in Aberdeen churches into the later decades of the century.

The title of the 1662 edition of the book says that the songs were taught in the 'Musick Schole of Aberdene' and the book was compiled by Thomas Davidson who was Master of Music at the Sang Schule (music school) attached to New Aberdeen's New Kirk. In fact, the city supported two music schools, whose ethos was 'music, manners and virtue', teaching the boys reading, writing and arithmetic as well as music. In 1664, only a single part-book was produced, just the vocal line, suggesting it could be used as a teaching aid but also for people to learn songs which were already in circulation.

The repertoire is varied, top parts of polyphonic songs from the late-fiftheenth and early-sixteenth centuries, simple strophic ballads, songs by pre-eminent English composers. The songs included on this disc are all from the first edition of the book (of which just one copy survives, in the Huntington Library, California), and in his admirably comprehensive booklet note David Lee comments on how the repertoire in the book mixes the English and Scots tongue (and in fact Aberdeen had its own distinctive dialect, Doric). 

Whilst the book's title is Songs and Fancies, there are in fact no fancies (instrumental pieces) in it! The most common instruments taught in Scottish schools at the time were viol, lute and harpsichord, so on this disc Mikko Perkola accompanies on the viola da gamba, as well as providing four instrumental improvisations based on the material. The songs performed here are only a snapshot, but a fascinating one, giving us a hint of a somewhat livelier musical life in 17th century Aberdeen than we might think.

Valdamaa and Perkola's selection of songs (11 from near 80) are mainly anonymous, plus two by Dowland and one by Thomas Campion, but the interest is not so much in individual songs as the whole, the evocation of a particular time and place. Perkola's accompaniments are highly effective and atmospheric, though clearly linking 17th and 21st century via techniques such as pizzicato, he provides accompaniments in the modern sense rather than a realisation of the missing lower parts. In his improvisations he moves us closer to the modern day, in a very effective manner.

Valdmaa sings in a beautifully clear and affecting manner. The disc does not include words but her diction is admirably clear, whether in English or Scots and she also brings out the story-telling element of these strophic songs. There is something refreshingly direct about Valdmaa's approach to these songs, engaging and certainly not precious.

Valdmaa trained in Tallinn and at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague, whilst Perkola trained in his native Finland and in The Hague and he also collaborates with jazz musicians and dancers. As I have said, the CD booklet provides admirable notes and artist biographies, whilst also crediting the Scottish Early Music Trust for its support. But it would be fascinating to know how an Estonian soprano and Finnish gamba player ended up making a recording for an Estonian Record label of the songs from the only 17th century book of secular music published in Scotland!

Whatever the background, this a beguiling disc and you don't need to know the complex history behind the music (fascinating though that is) to enjoy the delightfully imaginative combination of voice and gamba.

Aberdene 1662
Songs from John Forbes' Songs and Fancies, including music by John Dowland (1563-1626) and Thomas Campion (1567-1620)
Maria Valdmaa (soprano)
Mikko Perkola (viola da gamba)
Record 5-7 January 2020 at the Arvo Part Centre, Estonia
ERP 11520 1CD [56:09]

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