His Majestys Sagbutts & Cornetts
1. Pavan ‘Dolorosa’ – Peter Phillips (c. 1560-1628), arr. Jamie Savan
Buccaneer, the latest release from His Majestys Sagbutts & Cornetts, lives up to its royal lineage and adds to what is already a long (17 CDs) and distinguished line of high-quality releases by this UK ensemble. The content of this CD concentrates on the rather broad category of "Music from Spain and England." The ostensible reason being the well-documented use of sagbutts and cornetts in the major cathedrals and by the royal courts of both these empires during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The exquisite beauty of this music alone is reason enough to devote more than one CD to its exploration.
Buccaneer has many attributes worthy of special note, in addition to the beautiful playing so characteristic of HMSC. As in all their other recordings, Buccaneer, from the sparse but informative liner notes, to the attractive packaging, is clearly the product of a thoroughly professional ensemble. The content selected is a pleasing variety of styles with the first six tracks devoted to English music followed by eight selections from Spain. The CD concludes with three more English works.
One of the mainstays of English ensemble music is dance music. This genre is well-represented by Peter Phillips's Pavan and Galliard "Dolorosa", and two Spagnolettas by Giles Farnaby. These pieces open the English portion of the CD and John Dowland's Pipers Paven and Captaine Diggorie Piper - his Galliard, and a setting of "Greensleeves" are used to close the CD. One of the nice features of this collection is that Gary Cooper, the keyboardist, was allowed to solo: the two Spagnolettas show off his light and musically nuanced touch on a particularly sweet-sounding English virginal.
No collection of English ensemble music would be complete without at least one In Nomine. The In Nomine developed as a unique English genre during the sixteenth century, inspired by a short section in a John Taverner cantus firmus Mass of 1530. This short excerpt became a popular instrumental piece and spawned dozens of imitators. One would have to agree that the five-voice setting by Orlando Gibbons played here is exceptionally well-suited to performance by sagbutts and cornetts.
The opening English selections end with a wonderfully programmatic organ piece found in the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, "Fantasia Faire Wether… Lightning… Thunder" by John Munday. This is a very dramatic work and hearing Gary Cooper play it one understands why he is considered by many to be one of the leading early keyboard specialists in the world.
The Spanish repertoire presented ranges from transcriptions of organ (Dolce memoria by Cabézon, Batalla del sexto tono by Ximénez) and vocal music (Ave virgo sanctissima by Guerrero, Pereat dies by Ortiz) to a fine example of an ornamented setting of a secular madrigal, "Vestiva I colli" by Palestrina. The arrangement of Batalla del sexto tono by HMSC's Jamie Savan is a particularly effective and thoroughly rousing example of battle music. It is hard to believe this piece was not originally written for cornets and sagbutts. Savan displays a real understanding of adapting music for sagbutts and cornets. His arrangement of Dolce memoria is equally fine. The first half of Palestrina's two-part madrigal, Vestiva I colli, is the highly virtuosic setting for solo treble and bass instruments by Bartolomé de Selma. Showing that this art of ornamentation is not lost, the second part of the madrigal is a setting by HMSC's very own Adam Woolf. The de Selma setting is performed with solo cornetto and sagbutt with the organ playing a short-score version of the remaining three parts. In the second part, Woolf returns to the original five-voice texture of the madrigal, with each line played by a separate instrument. This difference in texture makes a very striking contrast between the two parts. Although I initially found this disturbing, Woolf's arrangement has such a smooth flow and is so well handled that this has become one of my favorite tracks. I am still not sure I hear the two parts of the madrigal as being integrally related, but they work so well as individual pieces that this almost does not matter. One of the finest examples of ensemble playing is the setting of Dolce memoria. From the exquisitely played passage work by both cornets and sagbutts, to the sensitive phrasing and beautiful tone colors, this piece is surely one of the highlights on this recording.
Also included in the Spanish section are several solo keyboard pieces played by Gary Cooper. At the risk of appearing to focus more on these than the brass music, I must again comment on how inspiring I found Gary Cooper's playing of the Cabézon, Fabordón y glosa. His technique and musicality is such that he can play with the most subtle nuance and communicate his intentions and understanding of the music with utmost clarity. The virginal he played is one of the sweetest sounding instruments I have heard. Equally impressive is his rendition of the Arauxo, Tiento y discurso. I also found Savan's arrangement of the Dowland Captaine Digorie, which includes Cooper playing the virginal to be a very pleasant piece. The virginal adds a nice color that accentuates without detracting from the wind parts.
This CD is the seventeenth release by HMSC. Although their earlier recordings displayed a very high level of musicianship, their sound and ensemble playing has matured over the years and this latest releases is certainly one of their best. Modern brass ensembles that play this repertoire would do well to listen closely to any recording by HMSC to get a better understanding of the style. One of the most pleasing aspects of HMSC is their lush sound, whether playing pp or ff, their glorious brass sound never gets harsh or becomes a fuzzy and unfocused. The intonation is always excellent and the musicality is exquisite. Because they play at such a consistently high level, it makes the very rare lapses from this standard more noticeable. It is only in the area of articulation that I find anything less than superlative. Even here, compared to other groups HMSC is on another level.
As a sagbutt player myself, I am always in awe of other players who can play rapid passages with a clean, even and fluid articulation. For the most part, that is what you will hear on this recording. The lower register of both tenor and bass sagbutt is the hardest on which to produce that light, even tonguing so necessary for expressive playing of this repertoire. I was particularly impressed with the playing on the di Selma Vestiva I colli. Although in the very lowest register the sagbutt articulation gets a bit thick, this is almost unavoidable and I have never heard a player able to maintain that subtle flexibility while relaxing his/her lips sufficiently to produce those lowest notes. The florid sagbutt playing on the concluding track, Greensleeves (another great arrangement by Woolf), demonstrates that sagbutts can articulate beautifully and cleanly. Thus, in track two (Galliard Dolorosa), I was somewhat disappointed with the rather boring articulation used - actually my surprise lay in the fact that at times the articulation was varied and helped clarify musical lines and at other times, it sounded very pedestrian. In my opinion, articulation is the main key to unlocking the inherent beauty of this repertoire. The players in Greensleeves did just that. Although in this piece, I would like to hear a more consistently bright sound from the sagbutt. When playing softly, the sagbutt tone sometimes was allowed to lose its focus.
The standard of cornetto playing has now risen so high that we expect nothing but perfection and almost without exception that is what we find on this recording. There are occasional notes that are slightly less beautiful than those on either side, particularly the lower notes near the end of Dolce memoria. I also sometimes found, very rarely though, the articulation to be uninspired. The cornett is capable of such varied and nuanced articulation, that when one hears passages of dry, equal, motoric articulation followed by a passage articulated with much more direction, subtlety, and nuance, one wonders why. But then the next track starts and one immediately forgets such subjective pickiness and gets lost in the glory that is His Majestys Sagbutts and Corentts.
Rutgers University (reviewing for the Historic Brass Society)