English songs and instrumental music of the 16th and 17th century
Klaartje van Veldhoven soprano, Seldome Sene recorder quintet
Brilliant Classics 95654
Music by Baldwine, Bennet, Byrd, Dowland, Gibbons, att. Nicholson, Purcell, Tye, Weelkes & anon
It’s a Beautiful Day … Soft Machine … Ten Years After … Spinal Tap. The 1960s pioneered the creative name among rock groups, and fifty years later Seldom Sene are mining the same vein as an ensemble performing Tudor and Stuart music. So, like their predecessors, do they … rock?
As on the previous recording that I reviewed recently in EMR (William Byrd: Consort Music and Songs performed by B-Five – another edgy name – and Sunhae Im) a soprano is pitted against an accompaniment of recorders on several of the tracks. Of the 21 tracks here, slightly under half are songs. So how, in this instance, does the timbre of the singer fare in consort with the recorders, given the usual expectation that the accompaniment would be for viols? Perhaps a fraction better than Sunhae Im who, for all her impressive vocal accomplishment, cannot subdue vestiges of a vibrato deriving from her specialism in Baroque opera. Klaartje van Veldhoven’s timbre has less, indeed scarcely any, obtrusive vibrato and she blends more smoothly with her accompaniment. This is best illustrated in a performance of Purcell’s In nomine of 6 parts in which she sings the plainsong (to the Latin text) with the quintet. The blend is ideal, while the effect is ethereal, almost (and perhaps actually) revelatory. Throughout the disc, the playing of the quintet is clear and precise while committed, with none of the pyrotechnics of B-Five. Indeed, Seldom Sene provide fresh approaches to pieces such as Byrd’s Browning and In nomine of 5 parts no. 5 and Tye’s title track (performed twice, at contrasting pitches) plus Purcell’s In nomine and his Fantasia 5 parts upon one note which are well known within their own genre. This provoked me to consider the disc’s unique selling point, or USP. Many in the same market are competing with fine music well performed. Why, apart from their luminous performances of the pieces I have just mentioned, should people purchase this disc? Part of the answer lies in the album’s margins. Alongside the two instrumental pieces, main man Byrd is represented by two songs. The sublime Ah silly soul follows Dowland’s I shame at mine unworthiness which is impressive enough with its angst and dissonances, yet Byrd’s song seems to plumb even greater emotional depths with much less effort. The other song by Byrd is If women could be fair which, like Susanna fair on B-Five’s album, has clanging contemporary resonances to which the female writer of the sleevenotes alludes wryly. But there is a musical issue as well. All the songs in Byrd’s Psalmes, sonets and songs of 1588 are printed as partsongs. Most have one part labelled as “the first singing part” from their origins as consort songs. This is one of a small number which have no such indication. Nevertheless it is one among three of these unlabelled songs that Joseph Kerman, in his book The Elizabethan madrigal suggests, on the basis of its musical structure, was originally a consort song. The putative “first singing part” is obvious and, unlike The Consort of Musicke in the only previous recording, Seldom Sene and Klaartje van Veldhoven take Kerman at his word, and it comes off splendidly. The entire ensemble also perform two fine songs by the able but neglected Nathaniel Patrick (both already recorded on Elizabethan Songs and Consort Songs, Naxos 8554284, by Catherine King with the Rose Consort), the relatively popular Venus’ birds by John Bennet (not anonymous, pace the sleevenotes) and Weelkes’ less recorded The nightingale. And if there is a feeling of familiarity in encountering the two anonymous warhorses Sweet was the song the Virgin sang and Farewell the bliss besides three items from Dowland’s Lachrymae (all understandable inclusions, after all this is a commercial recording) it is good to welcome two quirky instrumentals in What strikes the clocke, complete with concluding chime, by big brother Edward Gibbons, and Cuckoow as I me walked by Byrd’s scribe and cheerleader John Baldwin.
Before winding up, what would be the name equivalent to rock’s satirical Spinal Tap for an early music consort? Spinal Chord?
It remains to say that Seldom Sene perform on the full gamut of recorders, from sopranino to sub-contrabass, with judicious scorings in both the consort music and the songs; and that Klaartje van Veldhoven possesses an ideal voice for this repertory. It would be good to hear her on a disc devoted to Byrd, singing a combination of classics and premieres.