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Fanfare Magazine: 36:2 (11/12-2012)
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4250128511056 (IDV30)
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Appréciation d'ensemble/ Evaluation : "Definitely recommended".
Reviewer: Barry Brenesal

Division-musick refers to the improvisatory playing style that musical theorists of the European Renaissance called diminution: put simply, dividing note lengths. It was observed that doing this increased the apparent energy of a passage, displayed one’s technical agility, and provided an opportunity to exhibit one’s creative and appropriate use of ornamentation. The composers of Elizabeth’s day may have turned to their own native folk traditions, or been spurred to do so upon the example of the Italians, whose ballo gave rise to the masque. Whatever the reason, diminution was employed to excellent effect by a host of composers writing for keyboard instruments and various consorts.

This release concentrates on viol works from the troubled reign of Charles I, when the instrument was experiencing its last days of great popularity. Jenkins’s three charming lyra consorts are typically English in the conservative cut of their stylistic cloth. Instead of offering a succession of distinctly different dances as those suspicious foreigners do on the Continent, each consort/suite follows an earlier practice of presenting a succession of dances that are actually variations on the same theme, in the same key. Division appears sparingly, but to good effect, as in the Almaine of the Lyra Consort in D Major, and the Saraband of the second of two consorts in D Minor.

The three Divisions for Two Viols by Christopher Simpson included on this disc are spirited works. The distinctive ostinato bass line of each suggests folk origins, but gives away the sophistication of its composer in the subtle weave of its textures and complexity of its divisions. (The later pages of No. 7 in G Major reverse the progress of energy derived from diminution, obtaining an attractive effect through augmentation.) As for Simpson himself, after a military career on the royalist side, he taught viol. His The Division-violist, or An Introduction to the Playing upon a Ground was published in 1659, and derived from lessons prepared and given to John Bolles, son of his patron and friend Robert Bolles, Baronet of Scampton. Jenkins and Locke were among those who contributed laudatory verses to it. It was extremely popular, and went through two editions during his lifetime.

Lawes’s three-movement suite offers a pavan and two aires. The former makes use of that delightful artifact, the English cadence, while the latter pair might as well be a set of division variations on a single theme, split in half. The level of difficulty suggests a high degree of professional competence, but then Lawes was a composer who wrote secular and sacred music for the court of Charles I, and often performed it for the monarch with others of equal skill. Some of the curious angularity and “wrong note” effects found in his consort music can be heard briefly in these pieces as well.

A Division on a Ground by Mr. John Eccles is credited by its original publisher in 1705, John Walsh, to John Eccles, but the liner notes suggest the style is closer to that of the second half of the 17th century, and put forward Solomon Eccles as a possible composer. But Solomon was only 20 years older than John, and the author of the notes may not be familiar with the John Eccles’s The Judgment of Paris, and its song “Let Ambition Fire Thy Mind,” which follows identical melodic-harmonic procedures to this division. This could almost amount to a separate draft on the same theme.

The four-person ensemble Musicke & Mirth features two gambists (Jane Achtman, Irene Klein), a violinist (Amandine Beyer), and a keyboardist (Johannes Strobl). All are well known in early-music circles, and I’ve reviewed one of Beyer’s previous CDs, False Consequences of Melancholy: Ayres for the Violin (Zig-Zag 090802) very positively in these pages. They’ve chosen their music wisely for its mix of different textures, tempos, expressiveness, and complexity. The performances are reasonably varied in their pacing, without ever producing any sense of scrambling during some of the mercurial divisions Lawes invokes. Vibrato is used lightly for coloring, but the string players’ straight tone never suffers from any anemia. There’s a real sense of mutual engagement here in music-making as something that’s fun to listen to—and I’ll bet, fun to perform as well, at least for those with the technical competence to do so. Above all, Musicke & Mirth remembers that division was all about putting on a show. This they do, while remaining stylistically true to the instruction manuals of the time.

The miking is close enough to catch the full tonal resources of all instruments in good balance, and the ambiance strikes just the right median between dry and self-conscientiously reverberant. It would be easy to close one’s eyes and imagine this ensemble performing 15 feet away, in a relatively small but live space—and it’s a concert I’d gladly attend. Definitely recommended.

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