Music in a Cold Climate

Music in a Cold Climate: Sounds of Hansa Europe
In Echo, Gawain Glenton (director)
Delphian DCD34206. 67’32

In Echo is a new period instrument group, directed by the cornettist Gawain Glenton. Their core instrumental line-up of cornetto, violin, sackbut (doubling violin), bass viol and keyboards has been expanded for this their debut recording by an additional violin/viola, bass viol and, in one piece, a violone. Their programme retraces the route of musicians active in the Hanseatic League (Hansa) during its heyday in the 16th and 17th centuries. The league was a trading partnership encompassing several countries, from Tallinn to London via the Germanic free cities of Lübeck, Hamburg, and Bremen and similar ports in Holland, Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. The CD programme notes mention that the represented composers “each looked beyond their own shores and toward a sense of shared European culture and understanding” – a timely reminder today of the importance of freedom of travel for musicians. For this recording, In Echo also commissioned a new composition to complement the early pieces – Andrew Keeling’s Northern Soul.

The colourful combination of seemingly disparate instruments is illustrated from the start, with Nicolaus a Kempis’s Symphonia 1 a4, where violin, cornetto, sackbut, bass viol and organ play both in consort and in pairs, and in one distinctive passage in what Samuel Scheidt would have called in imitatio violinistica. This opening piece segues into a little sequence of four dances by William Brade. Antonio Bertali’s substantial Sonata a4 gives the players amply solo possibilities, notably over the slow tread of an extended passacaglia ground bass. There are some particularly virtuosic passages for Emily White’s eloquent tenor sackbut.

The violin playing of Bojan Čičić comes to the fore in two pieces by Thomas Baltzar, a solo Prelude followed by divisions on the folk tune John come kiss me now, the English title reflecting the fact that Baltzar moved from his birthplace of Lübeck to London. Many of these pieces were written at a time when the violin was taking over from the cornetto as the leading treble solo instrument, so it is particularly interesting to hear the two instruments in consort, the subtle delicacy of the violin blending well with the more vocal timbre of the cornetto. The CD finishes with a cornetto solo from Gawain Glenton – Johann Schop’s Lachrimae Pavaen. This compares with Silas Wollston’s earlier harpsichord performance of  Melchior Schildt’s Paduana Lagrima.  Silas Wollston also providing sensitive harpsichord and organ continuo accompaniments for most of the other pieces.

The organ is of particular interest. It is the 2010 St Teilo organ, the latest in a family of reconstructions of late medieval organs by Goezte & Gwynne. It is a reduced version of its elder brother, the 2001 Wetheringsett organ which in its turn, was based on a soundboard dating to around 1530 found in Suffolk masquerading as a barn door. The St Teilo organ was commissioned for research purposes and is named after its first home, the church of St Teilo in the St Fagans, National Museum of Wales. Like it’s older brothers, it has since moved around various liturgical and educational residencies. At the time of this recording, it was installed in a transept of Romsey Abbey, an acoustically attractive location for this recording. The organ adds a distinctive timbre to the music, both in the initial transient of the speech of its pipes, and also in the modified meantone temperament. The full-length stops (notionally at 10′ and 5′ pitch for reasons that are far too complicated to explain here) are heard to particularly good effect in track 10, Dietrich Becker’s Sonata a2 for cornetto and sackbut, where the low notes are clearly heard. In the more usually-heard a little box organs, these low notes are usually more-or-less inaudible.

St Teilo organ Romsey.jpg

Andrew Keeling’s Northern Soul is based on his own experience of travelling – in this case, walking in the Lake District rather than sailing between Hansa ports. The four linked movements (in fast/slow/fast/slow format) are called Walk 1 to 4 and are based on a sequence of four chords, fragments of an extended melody, and elements of a folk song apparently heard in a dream. It includes some delightfully jaunty passages, slinky harmonies, a captivating little motif of paired organ chords with plucked viol bass (in Walk 2), a bouncy third ‘Walk’ that I guess was downhill, and musical references ranging from jazz to Hindemith: the latter at the start and conclusion of Walk 4 where, incidentally, you can hear the seductive sound of the organs bellows being hand pumped. Andrew Keeling’s final walk seems to end in a Calvinist chapel, as the following track opens with the chorale-like texture of Johann Sommer’s Der 8. Psalm. Sommer one of the many little-known composers explored in this important recording.

This recording explores a fascinating repertoire and an important historical period. The programme notes are well written, but only in English. I should declare a tiny interest in that I was one of the several calcants who hand pumped the bellows of the medieval organ, using the two rope pulls visible on the right of the photo.

 

 

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