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CD Review: Baroque Recorder Ride

Recorder player Olwen Foulkes, center, with colleagues Tabea Debus and Nathaniel Mander.


Directed By Handel: Music from Handel’s London Theatre Orchestra
Olwen Foulkes, recorder, with Nathaniel Mander (harpsichord), Carina Drury (cello), Toby Carr (theorbo) and Tabea Debus (bass recorder)
Barn Cottage Records BCR019

By Andrew J. Sammut

All of the composers on this disc were part of Handel’s career in London, either playing in his opera orchestra or popular with audiences and amateur musicians. That broad connection results in an imaginative program including elegant dances by Corelli, Handel’s well-known lyrical grandeur, brief works from the rarely-heard Roman virtuoso-composer Castrucci, expansive theme and variations, folksy English airs, and more. Recorder player Olwen Foulkes has assembled a real Baroque grab bag packed with plenty of technical and expressive possibilities. Listeners might not even notice that, apart from two pieces, none of the music on this disc was actually intended for her instrument.

Foulkes’ liner notes explain that transcriptions for recorder were incredibly popular in London and in turn inspired her material on this album. The upper register writing in Corelli’s Sonata in C for violin (Op. 5, No. 10) now chimes as well as soars in Foulkes’ arrangement and playing. The Sarabande becomes a softly exhaling, hypnotic 18th-century gymnopédie. Sammartini composed his Sonata in G Minor (Op. 13, No. 5) to be played on transverse flute, violin or oboe, apparently never envisioning a recorder. Yet the melancholy first movement sounds perfectly natural in Foulkes’ hands. Her phrasing also gives the knotty arpeggios of the Presto a more incisive feel.

The sustained notes in Castrucci’s Sonata in A for violin (Op. 1, No. 6) were intended to show off string sound, but here they refract the range of colors in Foulkes’ tone. Recorders are synonymous with high pitches, so it is also refreshing to hear such a rich, fulsome middle register in Foulkes’ arrangement of the Ciaccona from Castrucci’s Op. 2. Foulkes’ transcription of a harpsichord air by Handel’s amanuensis John Christopher Smith (Op. 1, No. 6, which itself originally borrowed from Handel’s recorder works) starts out peaceful, at times even gloomy, then gradually splinters into runs and Foulkes building in intensity as well as dynamics before a finger-busting final variation.

Foulkes also switches up the continuo instrumentation on each work and sometimes between movements to add even further variety to this recital. Cellist Carina Drury and harpsichordist Nathaniel Mander display a real give and take in the Corelli sonata, slightly varying their balance and leaning into Corelli’s Gavotte for a thoroughly dancing account. It’s just Mander with Foulkes for Handel’s Sonata in F (Op. 1, No. 11), and they achieve a transparent, light mix that sacrifices none of Handel’s theatricality. Toby Carr’s lone theorbo accompanies Foulkes on the Castrucci, giving it a pastoral feel and allowing some playful exchanges between lead and accompaniment. Tabea Debus’ bass recorder is a downright ingenious touch on the Sammartini piece, at times sounding like organ stops grafted onto the harpsichord.

Olwen Foulkes

Handel’s only work for unaccompanied violin unfolds like an extended recorder cadenza to introduce Foulkes’ suite arrangement of arias from Handel’s Il Pastor Fido. With cello and theorbo alongside Foulkes, “Non vo’mai seguitar” gets a little 18th-century swing. The Sonata in F for cello by Geminiani (H. 107) and John Blow’s “Morlake” ground bass variations for harpsichord spotlight Drury and Mander, adding even more surprises to this program.

Close, crisp acoustics and engineering at St. Michael’s Church in London capture Foulkes’ every breath, which some listeners may find distracting. This writer found it made the effort and thought involved in this enterprise all the more palpable. In just over an hour, Foulkes and her colleagues take both the late Baroque and the recorder repertoire on quite a ride. The anonymously composed “Divisions On A Ground” for recorder ends the disc in a calmer, reflective mood, though not without a few shredding moments.

Andrew J. Sammut has written about early music and jazz for Early Music America, The Boston Musical Intelligencer, All About Jazz and his own blog. He lives in Cambridge, MA.

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CD Review: Three Lutes Played With Love

A drawing of Adam Falkenhagen

A drawing of Adam Falkenhagen, a 17th-century German lutenist and composer.


Tre liuti
Mark Rimple, lute

By Karen Cook

The “tre liuti” referred to in the title of Mark Rimple’s latest recording are the three lutes on which he performs on this album: a six-course lute, a ten-course lute, and a fourteen-course archlute. Taking each up in largely chronological order, Rimple showcases over two centuries of works for the Renaissance and Baroque lute. The 16th through early-18th centuries were the heyday for printed intabulations of works for a lute in G tuning (the same tuning as a tenor viol, hence its moniker vieil ton), at least in Italy; by the late 17th century, France and parts north began to shift to a D minor tuning, but Italy continued with the vieil ton until the end of the lute’s popularity. Rimple therefore focuses entirely on Italian repertoire, tracing music written for this tuning from 1507 to 1718.

All of the most popular Italian genres find a home on this recording: a few early intabulations of works by Ockeghem (Ma boucherit) and Josquin (Fortuna d’un gran tempo); a number of instrumental dances; virtuosic, free-form ricercares, fantasias, toccatas, and preludes; and later multi-movement sonatas (by Michelangnolo Galilei and Giovanni Zamboni Romano). As the album progresses, the works grow more fully textured, deeper, and more resonant with every new instrument, until the bass notes of the concluding Ceccona positively glow. Despite the changing tastes in genre and instrumentation over the centuries depicted here, Rimple points out that the vieil ton and the twinned proclivities toward detailed ornamentation and graceful melody remained a constant presence in the Italian lute repertoire. And so they are on this album; despite the vast difference in time period between the first Recercare by Francesco Spinacino (c.1507) to the aforementioned Ceccona by Romano, dating from the early 18th century, the works clearly share in a common Italian tradition that fuses the 26 works on the album together.

Mark Rimple

The works also clearly share Rimple’s extraordinarily sensitive playing. His careful attention to each work’s design allows for a rhetorical pause or delay here, a burst of energy there, a lovingly turned ornament elsewhere. In a manner of speaking, he makes these pieces transparent; one can easily hear the main melodic thrust of each selection despite the complexity of the diminutions or variations layered upon it. These pieces breathe.

Listen, for example, to the short but gorgeous Tastar de’ corde by Joan Ambrosio Dalza (fl. 1508), with its alternations between strummed and broken chords, its cadential pauses, its gorgeous shift to a delicately soft dynamic. Or, perhaps, to Francesco Canova da Milano’s Fantasy No. 33, with its slow layering of quick runs, building from low to high, sustaining the long melodic line. But it would be possible to wax poetic about each selection, in some fashion. It is a well designed and beautifully executed album that showcases the longevity and ingenuity of lute composition in early modern Italy, and a marvelous modern approach to its performance.

Karen Cook specializes in the music, theory, and notation of the late medieval and early Renaissance periods. She is assistant professor of music at the University of Hartford in Connecticut.

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7th Annual Portland Conservatory of Music Early Music Festival

The theme of the 2018 festival is “A Century of Chamber Music.” Friday and Saturday’s performances both feature music of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Sunday’s program ranges from Vivaldi’s Trio in G minor (1731) to François de Fossa’s Trio #3 from his Opus 18 (1826). Friday’s performance showcases Grand Harmonie, led by flautist Sarah Paysnick. Saturday’s program features The Berry Collective, led by fortepianist Sylvia Berry. Sunday’s performance is by Ensalada, a trio composed of violinist Lydia Forbes, cellist Myles Jordan, and Timothy Burris on lute and guitar. 

Funded in part by a grant from the Maine Arts Commission, an independent state agency supported by the National Endowment for the Arts.

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CD Review: Gems Of Italian Renaissance

Cantar alla Viola: Fernando Marín, viola da gamba, and Nadine Balbeisi, soprano.


Segreti Accenti Italian Renaissance Music
Cantar alla Viola (Nadine Balbeisi, soprano; Fernando Marín, bowed vihuelas and viol)
Quartz QT 2125

By Benjamin Dunham

This is definitely a CD to admire. Whether it is a CD to entertain will depend on what you are looking for.

As documentation of an almost-lost practice of the Renaissance — how to take a multi-part vocal work and play it with just a solo voice and a viola da gamba — it is worth its weight in gold. You won’t get tired of the gleaming voice of American-Jordanian soprano Nadine Balbeisi nor fail to admire the deft realizations of the other lines by Valencian gambist Fernando Marín. And there’s the added appeal of Marin’s instruments made by Javier Martínez: a 14th-century style viella, two sound-postless vihuele di arco of different sizes, and a copy of a 16th-century John Rose viola da gamba.

If the goal is to appreciate “all the sweetness” that is found in the solo voice (as Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier says of “cantare alla viola”), then goal accomplished.

But something is missing, and it’s not really the performers’ fault. These are mostly works by Luca Marenzio and Costanzo Festa whose full effect may depend on the combined harmonic strength of the different voices, their articulation, blend, etc., together with crescendos and decrescendos and other vocal techniques. For the most part, the solo soprano line was not conceived to hold your attention by itself, and in these realizations, the lines played on the viol don’t have the same synergy with the soprano as other voices would.

Our appreciation is not helped by the lack of words in the accompanying booklet, although the background for the realization of these pieces is well-explained and the instruments well-described.

Marín and Balbeisi

That said, there are a number of cherishable moments:

For example, a delicious falling phrase in Luca Marenzio’s “Amor tien il suo regno” mimics the passage in Josquin’s “La déploration de la mort de Johannes Ockeghem” (“Nymphes des bois”) that itemizes the great composer’s musical descendants. Hard to believe that Marenzio wouldn’t have been aware. And the madrigals by Luzzascho Luzzaschi, with their soloistic flourishes, and the earlier, spare, two-voice ballades by Magister Piero hold up especially well.

So, if you want to feel like a fly on the wall in a private home where these two wonderful artists are making music, it’s a wonderful feeling. But if you imagine yourself as a concert manager who happened to drop in, your first thought might not be to take this act on the road.

Formerly editor of American Recorder and Early Music America magazines, Benjamin Dunham has reviewed for Musical America, The Washington Post, and Gatehouse Media.


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