Sad Steps - Virelai (RVRCD62)

NEW SETTINGS OF RENAISSANCE POEMS

An intriguing set of new songs setting Renaissance love poems, performed by the group that commissioned them.'

The main challenge here was perhaps in the use of a Renaissance flute, a basically diatonic instrument. It can bend pitches well, of course, and is therefore suited to microtonal music; but one surprise about this group of pieces written for the Renaissance ensemble Virelai is that none of the composers used 'extended' techniques, and only one seems to have used microtones (Alastair Greig). The pieces are composed to fairly clear guidelines: a voice, a viol, a lute and a keyless flute; and texts from the years around 1600. So we have 18 pieces here, showing between them both coherence and variety. Each is about three minutes long - a further limitation that works very positively in that it tends to eliminate self-indulgence.

The 10 composers have a nicely varied set of approaches. Andrew Keeling, who provides the first two and last two pieces, neatly creating a cyclic impression, tends towards the folksong manner, partly because his lute writing favours broken chords.

David Stoll moves more in the direction of Dowland-with-wrong-notes and of imitation, both of which he does very well. The most modern sounding pieces come from Malcolm Bruno and Fabrice Fitch both very nicely handled; and perhaps the one to make the most original use of the intrinsic features of the instruments is Elizabeth Liddle, who provides a fascinating study of mainly open strings on the treble and bass viols.

Catherine King has no difficulty in encompassing the various vocal styles represented here; and the variety of approaches adds life to the anthology. Jacob Heringman who seems to have been mainly responsible for choosing the order of the pieces, provides much of the essential continuity with his always stylish lute playing.

September 2003, Gramophone. Reviewed by David Fallows
© Gramophone Publications Ltd, 2003

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