July 19, 2012


Two Lutes: Lute Duets from England’s Golden Age. Ronn McFarlane and William Simms, lutes. Sono Luminus. $16.99.

William Lawes: Consorts to the Organ. Phantasm (Lawrence Dreyfus, treble viol and director; Wendy Gillespie, treble viol; Jonathan Manson, tenor viol; Markku Luolajan-Mikkola, bass viol); Emilia Benjamin, tenor viol; Mikko Perkola, tenor and bass viols; Daniel Hyde, organ. Linn Records. $22.99 (SACD).

Franz Xaver Dussek: Four Symphonies. Helsinki Baroque Orchestra conducted by Aapo Häkkinen. Naxos. $9.99.

      From three centuries come works of very different character and very considerable interest on these three recordings – all played very idiomatically by musicians clearly steeped in the very different requirements of pieces composed under differing sets of rules.  Two Lutes delves into the 16th century and a bit into the early 17th, primarily featuring lute duets by John Johnson (1540-1594), John Danyel (1564-after 1625), John Dowland (1563-1626) and Thomas Robinson (c. 1560-1610).  There are also a few works by other composers and a number of anonymous ones, some of the latter being quite well-known – Greensleeves and La Rossignol, to mention two.  Dowland is far and away the best-known composer of this time for the lute, but only two of his works are here: Ronn McFarlane and William Simms prefer to focus on Johnson (10 pieces) and Robinson (six).  And indeed, although Dowland’s music for solo lute remains preeminent, Johnson and Robinson prove to have considerable skill in writing for a pair of the instruments, whose lines intertwine pleasingly in a variety of dance forms (notably pavan and galliard), song-derived works (“The Nuts Be Brown,” “Wakefield on a Green”) and pieces that, for their time, were comparatively free-form (“A Fantasie,” “A Toye”).  McFarlane and Simms balance their instruments with care and bring out the melodic and contrapuntal lines of all 27 short works on this Sono Luminus CD with skill and some very adept finger work.  None of the pieces especially stands out on its own – not even Dowland’s – but taken as a whole, they provide an involving and intricate listening experience using instruments and musical forms too pleasing to the ear to have fallen into total obscurity since the Renaissance (when the lute was the most popular of all instruments).

      The music of William Lawes (1602-1645) partakes of much the same sorts of sounds, for all that it is somewhat later than the lute works.  The Consorts to the Organ heard on a new Linn Records SACD are five-part and six-part “sets,” in three movements or four, for strings as well as organ – Renaissance precursors of the great Baroque suites of Bach and Telemann.  Certainly simpler and more transparent than the later works, they have a directness and charm that are altogether winning.  And in fact they pushed beyond the traditional musical rules of their time, as Lawes strove with considerable success to produce freer and less-rigid music than many of his contemporaries created.  Often setting his Consorts in minor keys – as is the case with four of the seven on this recording – Lawes varied the structure of individual works very considerably.  The five-part, four-movement set in C minor, for example, contains a Fantazia, Aire, Paven [sic] and another Aire; but the three-movement one in A minor contains two Fantazias (the first being labeled “Fantazy”) and an Aire.  An occasional movement bears an unusual title and form: “On the Playnsong” in the G minor five-part set and “Inominy” in the B-flat major six-part set.  All Lawes’ music is carefully, even elegantly constructed, with contrapuntal and fugal elements that were well ahead of their time.  And Lawes had a most unusual approach to his themes, not hesitating to juxtapose intense, even peculiar ones with simple ones that would not be out of place in a pastorale.  Indeed, after Lawes was killed during the English Civil War that led to the rule of Oliver Cromwell, his music rapidly fell into disfavor – largely because he had been employed by Charles I but also because what he wrote was considered simply too strange.  The members and guests of the ensemble Phantasm take great delight in bringing this music back to life, not going out of their way to highlight its unusual elements but certainly not downplaying them either.  The result is a very fine recording of works that not only carry the sound of long ago but also look much farther into the future then do others of the early to middle 17th century.

      Fast forward one century more to another set of very interesting but very little-known music: symphonies (actually called sinfonias) by Franz Xaver Dussek (1731-1799).  When he is remembered at all nowadays, which is seldom, Dussek is known as the man at whose summer villa Mozart completed Don Giovanni in 1787 and perhaps also La Clemenza di Tito in 1791.  But Dussek was more than merely Mozart’s friend (not that there is anything very “mere” about that).  He was the leading composer of instrumental music in Prague – as well as a highly respected teacher and a harpsichordist and pianist of considerable fame.  His last name is sometimes written Duschek; in proper Czech spelling, he is František Xaver Dušek.  Dussek taught piano to Mozart’s son, Karl Thomas Mozart (1784-1858).  And Dussek’s wife, Josepha Hambacher, also has a strong Mozart connection: she sang in several Mozart operas, and a concert aria called Bella mia fiamma, K. 528, was written for her.  But it was not Mozart who influenced Dussek’s own symphonies/sinfonias, which date to the 1760s and 1770s: all are in the stile gallant of the early Classical period.  The four played by the 18-member Helsinki Baroque Orchestra under Aapo Häkkinen, who conducts from the fortepiano, have considerable verve and good spirits.  All are in major keys: G, A and B-flat (one in three movements, one in four).  Themes are well chosen and adeptly developed; orchestration is nicely handled, more than adequately balanced and frequently clever, if not especially innovative; and the overall impression of all four works is of music partaking of the lighter side of Haydn or Dittersdorf.  None of these pieces stands out for depth of expression or any particular intensity, although the four-movement sinfonia in B-flat is longer and somewhat more fully worked out than the three in three movements.  There is considerable charm in this music, including the charm of rediscovering a skilled musical craftsman of Mozart’s time; and the very fine performances on this Naxos CD certainly give the music its full due.  But by no stretch of the imagination can Dussek be deemed a major undiscovered talent – he certainly had abilities in composition as well as performance, but his contributions to the music of his time are, for all their pleasantries, decidedly modest ones.

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