Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Favorite-Record Profile #1: Dowland Consort Music

LP: Hyperion A66010 (1981)
CD: Hyperion CDA66010 (1981)
Dowland: Consort Music
Extemporé String Ensemble 

What makes any given record a favorite? After forty years of collecting, and well over 2,000 acquisitions (approximately 1,000 LPs (all sold or given away by 1991), and currently just over 1,200 CD albums collected since 1986) I have a few thoughts on the matter. A great performance goes without saying. Good sound is important, too, though occasionally—not often—a superior performance may end up transcending less than stellar sonics. There are many records that I like well enough, recognizing all manner of admirable qualities in performance, sound engineering and production. But for a record to become a favorite, call it love at first hearing; the record needs to zero in on that sweet nexus of physical and intellectual pleasure, engaging the visceral and the cerebral with near-equal intensity. Beyond that magical first encounter, the record must continue to claim attention, entertain consistently, revealing with each subsequent hearing something seemingly new and undeniably interesting.

Elsewhere on this site, visitors will find a page entitled Favorite Records. I have been gradually compiling this list in my leisure hours based on the catalog of my LP collection made back in the late 1980s, and a continually-updated master list of my current CD holdings. When finished, the list will probably top out at about 250 titles.  In addition, I will be posting short “profiles” of a few selected favorites from time to time, choosing the subject at random as the mood strikes me. Here is the first profile.

What happens when impeccable classical technique, a thoughtful approach to period performance practice, and dazzling improvisatory skill all come together? Something akin to Jacobean jazz, or, at least, as close and authentic an approximation to the early-Seventeenth-century practice of extemporizing as one is ever likely to hear.  What makes this album such an unalloyed delight is that the members of the Extemporé String Ensemble actually seem to be enjoying themselves, communicating that sense of delectation and fun, insouciance and pure musical verve that is not only rare in recordings of early music, but virtually unique. Of course, many superb ensembles have tackled this repertory over the decades; Fretworks, The Rose Consort, and, perhaps most notably, Anthony Rooley’s Consort of Musicke, but more often than not these performances have been dry, tepid affairs, flawless in terms of execution to be sure, but diffident and over-cautious where actual interpretation is concerned. By contrast, the Extemporé players seem fearless, more than willing to take some risks, and daring to offer an opinion about the music they so obviously love, and execute with such charming panache.

Compare, for instance, the Extemporé ensemble’s 1981 rendition of Dowland’s iconic Lacrymae Pavan for Hyperion with Rooley’s well-known recording from a few years earlier (L’Oiseau-Lyre DSLO 533 (1977)), or, more tellingly, compare the additional material included on each album. Fine as they are, Rooley’s players never seem to vary the mood, or the tempo, regardless of whether they essay a slow, stately pavan or some essentially faster, lighter-toned piece; it’s as if the music were being played in a vacuum devoid of any infecting hint of "unauthentic" practice, and thus, devoid of life itself. By contrast, the Extemporé performance is crackling, sharp, vibrant, and utterly unforgettable.

Hyperion's recorded sound was excellent for an early digital effort, if sometimes a bit raucous and "wide open" in the upper and lower extremes, though this rough-hewn quality seems perfectly in sync with the spirit of the performances. This recording was also available for a time on a Musical Heritage Society LP (MHS 4808 (1983)). I am not sure if it was ever re-issued on Helios (Hyperion’s budget imprint), though if not, it ought to be. Good used copies of the CD and vinyl versions are still fairly easy to locate, and are well worth owning.

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