Saturday, July 17, 2021

Between 'art' and tradition (2)

A couple of weeks ago I wrote the first weblog on music between 'art' and tradition, which focused on music from the continent, from the Middle Ages to our time. In this weblog, I return to this subject, but now with music from the British isles, and some from Scandinavia. For some reasons there seems to be a connection between the two in musical matters.

The British ensemble Wilde Roses [1] released a disc under the title "Woven". It comprises a collection of anonymous pieces from the British isles, including early specimens of traditional music. The programme is a mixture of vocal and instrumental items, and includes both secular and sacred pieces. One of the latter is the carol Deo gracias Anglia, whereas The Willow Song is a secular piece. The disc closes with four pieces from The English Dancing Master, which dates from the second half of the 17th century. This indicates that we get here music from very different times, which explains the stylistic differences. As the items are not ordered chronologically, the listener is torn between the Middle Ages and the time that the Renaissance in England came to its close. I find that rather unsatisfying, but others may have a different experience. Other aspects are more problematic. Almost all pieces are arranged, and the result is not always convincing. Little is left, for instance, of the character of The Willow Song. Some pieces are newly written and don't fit that well into the programme. The interpretation is rather inconsistent: on the one hand the performers use historical pronunciation, which is very praiseworthy. On the other hand, they make use of a nyckelharpa, an instrument which belongs in the tradition of Scandinavia, but whose use in England is highly debatable. The programme of this disc is quite interesting, but the way it has been realised and the performances are disappointing.

With the second disc we enter better-known territory. Clare Wilkinson, Veronika Skuplik, Hille Perl and Andreas Arend [2] perform a programme which includes pieces by well-known composers, such as Henry Purcell, John Blow and Christopher Simpson. Again, the items date from different periods, but there the distance in time is less extreme. Most of the pieces date from the period of around 1600 to the early 18th century, which means that both the renaissance and baroque periods are represented. Far less known - at least outside the British isles - are the traditional items. More than the previous disc, this recording moves between 'art' and tradition. However, the programme is rather inconsistent, in that the connection between the two is rather loose or even absent (unlike that on the disc by the ensemble Prisma, which I reviewed in the previous weblog). It is a mystery to me, what may be the connection between the two violin sonatas by Henry Eccles and Godfrey Finger respectively on the one hand and the traditional songs on the other. As in so many recordings of traditional music, many pueces have been arranged. That is inevitable, especially as traditional tunes are monophonic. Moreover, arrangement is one of the features of traditional music. Unfortunately, here the arrangements include elements which are stylistically at odds with the tenor of this programme. Moreover, several pieces of 'art' music are also arranged. It was a pretty bad idea to add instrumental parts to some of the lute songs included here, such as Robert Johnson's Have you seen the white lily grow. Out of this wood, a text from William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, is sung here to the Italian tune known as La Monica and in England as The Queen's Alman, but the text does not really fit the tune too well. The performers are fine artists, but this recording leaves me rather unsatisfied. As one may expect, the pieces of 'art' music that are performed as they were intended by the composers, come off best by far.

The third disc connects traditional music from Britain and Scandinavia. The common subject is midsummer, which is celebrated in both parts of Europe. Considering the character of the programme I was hesitating whether I would review this disc. However, the Quadriga Consort [3] calls itself an 'early music band' and therefore music lovers may expect 'early music'. A look at its website shows that this ensemble has a special interest in traditional music and often performs repertoire on the brink of traditional and 'art' music. As they are from Austria it is remarkable that they give much attention to music from the British isles; two of their discs are devoted to English Christmas music, and they also recorded traditional music from Scotland. As far as I can tell, their performances are pretty idiomatic, which is quite an achievement. That said, the present disc can hardly be considered 'early music'. Only in some cases the liner-notes indicate when a piece has come into existence; I assume that the date of 'composition' is often not known. Fact is that a number of pieces are from the 19th or 20th centuries; one Swedish piece is Idas sommarvisa, a setting of words by Astrid Lindgren used for a movie of 1973. Given the nature of the programme, one wonders why early music instruments such as recorders, viola da gamba and basse de violon are used. Most pieces are arranged, and six items are settings of traditional texts by the ensemble's director, Nikolaus Newerkla. This disc is probably mainly of interest to those who have a special liking of traditional music. Pieces of 'art' music are entirely absent. The singing and playing leave nothing to be desired.

With The Poker Club Band [4] and its disc, called "Tulluchgorum", we return safely to the 18th century, which saw the emergence of a lively interest in music that was characteristic of a particular country or region. It was the time of the Enlightenment, and part of its philosophy embraced a wish to increase knowledge and an emphasis on the importance of learning. At the same time, 'naturalness' was greatly appreciated, and this resulted in an idealization of life at the countryside and its music. Some composers showed interest in traditional music, and Joseph Haydn, one of Europe's most famous composers, took up the challenge of writing accompaniments for keyboard, violin and cello to traditional tunes from Scotland. However, some Scottish musicians considered these arrangements too sophisticated and too far away from what Scottish music was about. This inspired the harpist Masako Art to put together a programme of Haydn's arrangements and some original Scottish songs and perform it in the manner of a 'historical crossover'. The members of the ensemble play period instruments, among them a guitar and a harp, and James Graham, a seasoned singer of traditional music, takes care of the songs. In between we hear some instrumental pieces, all inspired by Haydn. Art's idea has resulted in a most interesting and highly entertaining programme, excellently executed by singer and instrumentalists. It will not only appeal to lovers of tradional music, but also to Haydn fans.

[1] Woven
Wilde Roses
Rubicon RCD1061 (© 2020) details

[2] Ballads within a dream
Clare Wilkinson (soprano), Veronika Skuplik (violin), Hille Perl (viola da gamba), Andreas Arend (theorbo)
deutsche harmonia mundi 19075982082 (© 2020) details

[3] Midsummer - Traditional songs and dance tunes from Scandinavia and Britain
Quadriga Consort
deutsche harmonia mundi 19439858972 (© 2021) details

[4] Tullochgorum - Franz Joseph Haydn: Scottish Songs
The Poker Club Band/Masako Art
BIS 2471 [SACD] (© 2019) details

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