When Matthew Locke
died in 1677, Henry Purcell realised that an era had come
to an end: "What hope for us remains now he is gone?"
Music for a consort of instruments was an important part of
that era in the history of music, and English music in particular.
Although consort pieces were written before William Byrd,
it was he who was the first composer to write a considerable
number of works of this kind. Consort music was mainly written
for private entertainment among friends. The demand must have
been huge, considering the amount of pieces written by composers
of the first half of the 17th century. This may well reflect
the growing wealth in Britain which allowed people to buy
instruments to play this kind of repertoire.
Even though most
consort music was specifically written for viols, it is historically
justifiable to play it on recorders; hence the Flanders Recorder
Quartet on this disc. The recorder consort enjoyed great popularity
in the Netherlands in the 16th century, which is reflected
in the number of pieces for this combination of instruments
published, especially in Antwerp. But there was a keen interest
in the recorder consort in England as well. King Henry VIII
was an avid player of the recorder. He also collected recorders:
more than seventy instruments of this kind were listed in
an inventory drawn up after his death. It was also Henry who
invited five brothers of the Venetian Bassano family to England
to play at his court. They were not only virtuosic recorder
players, but also active as composers and arrangers of music
and made their own instruments. In the booklet, Han Tol refers
to Samuel Pepys, who wrote in his diary that he went to the
theatre in February 1668 and heard a recorder consort. This
proves that long after the death of Henry VIII the recorder
consort was still in vogue.
In Henry's time
the largest part of the repertoire consisted of vocal works
- although Henry himself composed a number of pieces for consort.
By contrast recorder consorts in the 17th century mostly played
consort music originally written for an ensemble of viols.
Matthew Locke was one of the last English composers who devoted
time and energy to writing for this kind of ensemble.
recorded here probably dates from the mid-1650s. The English
theorist Roger North considered the six suites of this collection
"a magnifick consort of 4 parts, after the old style,
which was the last of the kind that hath bin made". Purcell
was right in signalling that Locke's death meant the end of
an era. In his time French and Italian music increasingly
influenced the style of composing in England, including Purcell's.
Locke was outright negative about foreign music: "I never
yet saw any foreign composition worthy an English man's transcribing."
To label him 'xenophobic', as a reviewer once did, seems to
me far out of proportion, though.
As one can read
in every article and booklet about Locke he is generally considered
a man of rebellious nature, who did nothing to avoid the disapproval
of his contemporaries. He had close ties to Prince Charles
I, and it was probably when he accompanied the Duke of Newcastle
to Antwerp in 1649 that he converted to Catholicism. It seems
his intractable character is reflected in his music. The suites
on this disc are full of strange harmonies and strong dissonances,
in particular the 'fantazies' which open every suite. The
fantazie of the Suite No. 2 is a good example: the flow of
the music suddenly stops and then follows a series of most
unexpected harmonies, before the piece ends with a beautiful
consonant chord. The dance movements which follow the fantazies
- courante, ayre and saraband - are more in line with the
traditional suite, but even here Locke makes his own mark.
It should be noted that the saraband is not yet the slow dance
it would become in the 18th century. In the first suite the
courante is replaced by a galliard (a fact which is ignored
in the tracklist in the booklet, which calls the second movement
of this music on recorders makes some adaptations inevitable.
Three of the suites have been transposed, as the tracklist
shows. Apart from that the sound of a recorder consort is
considerably different. The dynamic range of the recorder
is more limited than that of the viola da gamba. And in a
recorder consort the upper instruments tend to dominate -
the lower recorders (tenor, bass and contrabass) are relatively
soft. In a consort of viols the balance between the instruments
is generally more satisfying.
The Flanders Recorder
Quartet is one of the best ensembles of its kind, and it shows
in this recording. The playing is technically superb, with
a perfect intonation which is difficult to achieve with this
grouping. And the character of the single pieces comes across
very well. The dances are performed with great flair, and
the often obstinate fantazies are perfectly realised. The
only question mark regards the choice of baroque recorders.
I wonder if renaissance recorders would have been a more logical
option as Locke's music is rooted in the style of the renaissance.
To sum up: this
is a splendid recording of fascinating repertoire by an ensemble
which unites technical brilliance with a thorough understanding
of the music. Those who would like to hear this music with
a consort of viols need look no further than the superb recording
by Phantasm (gmn.com GMNC0109).
Johan van Veen