October 23, 2008


She’s Sweetest When She’s Naked: Flute Music from 18th-Century Scotland. Alison Melville, baroque flute and recorder; Michael Jarvis, Paul Jenkins and Charlotte Nediger, harpsichord; Mary-Katherine Finch, baroque cello; Kirk Elliott, harp and guitar; Ben Grossman, bodhrán, tambourine and snare drum. EarlyMusic.com. $16.99.

J. Henry D’Anglebert: Pièces de clavecin. Hank Knox, clavecytherium. EarlyMusic.com. $16.99.

     Here are some utterly fascinating explorations of virtually unknown music of the 17th and 18th centuries, performed in authentic style on original instruments (or well-made copies) by specialists in the works and performance practices of this time. Adventurous listeners will be captivated from first note to last by these highly unusual and exceptionally well-played recordings.

     She’s Sweetest When She’s Naked – a titillating title, taken from a song, although there are no vocals on the CD – is a collection of early Scottish music by such composers as James Oswald (Caledonian Pocket Companion, 1742-59), Edward Miller (The Braes of Ballandyne, 1799), Nicola Matteis (Ayrs for the Violin, 1685), Charles Macklean, Alexander Munro, and of course Anonymous. The creators of the music are pretty much beside the point here – what matters is how these works sound, which is to say how they sounded when they were fresh and new to the ear. Thanks to the meticulous scholarship of Alison Melville and her accompanists, the music actually sounds fresh and new right now: the blend of flute or recorder with harpsichord and cello continuo and a variety of percussion (notably the bodhrán, a shallow handheld goatskin drum) results in a level of grace and sensitivity that seems wholly appropriate to the light, almost flighty airs, sonatas and dance tunes. The sets of variations (by Matteis, Munro and Oswald) have a special charm all their own, since their basis is popular music of the time and these variations therefore represent an especially pleasant melding of “low” and “high” art – between which, in truth, there was less distinction in the 17th and 18th centuries than there would be in later years. In fact, all the music here is essentially “popular” in origin – it was collected after Scotland was united with England, as a way to preserve the unique elements of Scottish heritage – and it certainly deserves to attain popularity anew when played with the skill and verve that these performers bring to it.

     There is skill aplenty in Hank Knox’s CD, too, but this is music of a very different kind – although of roughly the same time period: J. Henry D’Anglebert lived from 1629 to 1691, and his Pièces de clavecin date to 1689. The strange-looking and strangely named clavecytherium is simply an upright harpsichord; but it is not, after all, as simple as that. In the much later world of pianos, an upright involves inevitable compromises in construction, notably of the sound board, compared with a grand; but in the case of the clavecytherium, the reason for whose upright construction remains unknown, what we really hear is an instrument with an interestingly different sound from that of the harpsichord – not a muted version, suitable for small rooms and for practice, as is the case with the clavichord, but simply a harpsichord with an alternative kind of sound. D’Anglebert’s Pièces de clavecin consisted of four suites – a total of 57 pieces. The collection is most famous among musicologists because it contained a very complete table of ornaments and their realizations – an invaluable guide to correct performance that served as the basis for many later such tables. The Pièces de clavecin are also, it turns out, very accomplished music – D’Anglebert was composer and court harpsichordist to King Louis XIV, and the Sun King clearly had high expectations of his court music (as of everything else). Knox offers excerpts from three of D’Anglebert’s four suites on this CD, playing on a reproduction of a clavecytherium made by Albertus Delin in 1768. The works, most by D’Anglebert himself but some being transcriptions of pieces by Lully, are skillfully constructed; the instrument’s sound is at once exotic and familiar; and the playing is impeccable. The result is a courtly disc to charm, if not the commoner, then the uncommon music lover of today.

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