What fun it might have been to be a subject during the reign of Elizabeth I. With all things secular gaining a toehold in the minds and hearts of Englishmen (notably Shakespeare, Marlowe, Dowland, Byrd and Morley—who wasn’t above “importing” Italian musical forms and adapting same with his own invention: globalization far ahead of its time), the sheer variety of ideas (via words, notes or happy combinations of both) must have made every concert or theatre performance a heady experience (imagine seeing Macbeth at its première or being asked to the palace to hear her majesty’s consort’s latest charts!).
Fortunately, and until time-travelling actually works outside of the imagination, Dorian Recordings has compiled previously released discs and come up with a most generous and varied helping of Elizabeth’s Music.
The thirty-one tracks have been thoughtfully structured as if at a benefit concert with eight different acts. The Baltimore Consort is on first with a crisp, mostly clear rendition of “The Queen’s Treble” followed up with Custer LaRue’s pleasant if mono-dynamic voice (with a slight “wow” in the bass line) in “Consort Lessons.” “My Lord Oxenfords Maske” features a spot-on energetic viol before the first set closes convincingly with “Robin Is to the Greenwood Gone” (Larry Lipkis adds beautifully shaped and embellished lines with his recorder). The title harkens to Scott Kaiser’s fascinating study of Shakespeare’s Wordcraft (cross-reference below). Why not invite friends over for an ale, delve into Kaiser’s engaging study, all the while listening to these first-rate tracks before heading off to Stratford (on either side of the Atlantic)?
The next group comes courtesy of virginalist Colin Tilney. “Why Ask You,” Giles Farnaby’s ode to the scale, is beautifully balanced, inviting listeners to get as close as preferred with either headphones or speakers. “Paduana Lachrymae” is the second-longest offering on the CD, but with overly affected phrasing and a one-dimensional mid-section (becoming a solo conversation) the enjoyment that is innate in the thoughtful lines just as they are is forestalled.
Soon it falls to soprano Julianne Baird and lutenist Ronn McFarlane to take stage and perform a quartet of songs (one of which, “Packington’s Pound,” is an easy-lilting solo for McFarlane). The highlight of their collaboration is “In Darkness Let Me Dwell,” where the dirge-like opening melody is hauntingly presented with muted consonants and very little vibrato that truly sings death in the face.
The Baltimore Consort provides an encore group notable for the engaging lilt of “Howells Delight” and “There Were Three Ravens,” where the multi-stanza story/song is a marvel of ensemble and subtle variety of accompaniments, the only blemish being incomprehensibly covered words as the band adds colour to the middle verses.
A trio of “Greensleeves” from McFarlane cleanses the pallet prior to the ever-fresh voices of the Toronto Consort (especially their stellar bass). “See, see the Shepherd’s Queen” is over two minutes of unadulterated fa-la-la fun; “Willy Prithee Go to Bed” features a hilarious character-voice lead, triple metre that demands the dance floor and barnyard imitations to beat the band; the ever-famous “Now Is the Month of Maying,” with its drive and verve, says emphatically “Yes, they may!”
Tenor Frederick Urrey joins McFarlane for three tunes that put the singer’s voice in a better light as each progresses (a slight push of the middle register in “Weep You no More, Sad Fountains” vanishes in “Fine Knacks for Ladies”) whose only flaw is a too-faithful capture of the final s-consonants in the text.
The remainder of the collection is a master class by McFarlane, replete with ornamental philosophy (“Fortune My Foe”), homage fit for a monarch (“Queen Elizabeth’s Galliard”) and a brief adieu (“Mrs. Winter’s Jump”) that leaves the ear, mind and soul well-filled with wondrous art. JWR