Tobias HUME, Orlando GIBBONS, John DOWLAND –  Poetical Humors – Les Inattendus:  Vincent Lhermet (accordion) Marianne Muller (viola da gamba) – Harmonia Mundi 902610 – 70:15, (9/14/18)  ****:

The Renaissance has been characterized as a period of radiant rediscovery of the beauty of the Human, a celebration of sensuality, intellect, and creative powers. This view could be supported by a quick tour through an art museum. However, a more considered examination of the 17th century—from say, Shakespeare to Purcell—reveals an age of gloomy anxiety. Themes of human mortality, suffering, and especially melancholy play a central role in thinkers and artists. It is especially in merry olde England that the latter theme becomes a self-conscious trope. The foremost exponent of melancholy, John Dowland, linked the term to his own name, wearing his gloom as a badge “Semper Dowland, semper dolens.” 

Captain Hume

Captain Humes

Song of loss and grief are the staple of folk music to be sure, and the Madrigal elevates these timeless themes, by way of expressive gestures, to a new art form. But it was in England that a purely instrumental idiom arose. It found the perfect voice in the viol. There is probably no instrument better able to express sadness in exquisite tones of beauty as the instruments of this family.

It transpired that the instrument became something of a fad among amateur musicians, giving rise to all manner of consorts who played music for private entertainment in domestic settings. Composers reciprocated this amateur enthusiasm with a century’s worth of musical innovation. Three of the finest of these are represented in the recording at hand: Tobias Hume, John Dowland and Orlando Gibbons.

In Les inAttendus the viola da gamba of Marianne Muller arrives with the expected 17th-century scores but with a most unexpected partner, accordionist Vincent Lhermet. The pairing, though unprecedented, makes perfect sense. The sonic capabilities of this 19th century instrument, its sweetness and sighing reediness, would have sent violists into raptures.

The subtitle of the record is Poetical Humors. According to the  Early Modern medicinal doctrine, happiness follows from the correct balance between the four humors. Here the balance could scarcely be improved. As expected, the accordion blends perfectly with viola da gamba. Whether carrying a simple melody such as Dowland Shall I sue, shall I seek for grace or supporting 3 voice polyphony as in Gibbon’s galliard, Lhermet achieves warmth and clarity. Meanwhile Muller’s instrument is perfectly captured in the glow of its middle range and has striking dark hues in the lower register. On occasion, she strums and plucks her instrument with the effect of lute-like tenderness.

Two well known Dowland tunes, Flow my tears and Can she excuse invite the listener into an the most intimate conversation. Whatever humors are being stirred, the effect is to make you want to hurriedly share the rare experience with other listeners. Tobias Hume, a one time professional soldier, specialized in tunes for his favorite instrument. On What greater grief, we hear the composer’s special treatment of the instrument as a pensive soliloquist. In this clever arrangement, the accordion weaves in an almost chamber-organ-like accompaniment. It is a brilliant concept and perfectly carried through.

Viol FamilyThe real inattendue (unexpected thing) of this recording is not the inspired pairing of instruments but the arrival of a handful of pieces which deviate from the viol idiom in dramatic and not entirely successful ways. In the liner notes, we learn that each musician wished to showcase a solo piece. Muller chooses a ravishing Tobias Hume piece Touch me sweetly, which is perfection itself. Lhermet opts for two harpsichord pieces from the eccentric John Bull, which are boisterously cheerful and technically demanding. In terms of mood, they are closer to a  carousel-ride soundtrack. Perhaps it was an effort to lift the mood, and indeed, the jollity of Goodnighte suits the Mediterranean street-theater sound of the instrument perfectly. However, one feels that this divigation might entail a lost opportunity; nicely balanced humors are suddenly thrown into a hurly-burly.

The musicians state: “It became obvious to us that we had to start creating a body of works in which our two instruments, though they be centuries apart, could be evenly balanced.” They might not have had much time to sort through suitable works for a brand new repertoire. The composers’ pieces chosen, Theirry Tidrow and Phillipe Hersant, seem awkward in this particular recital.

Portrait Tobias Hume, by Joe Davie

Tobias Hume,
by Joe Davie

The first piece explores extreme sonics on the Viola da Gamba on a nine and a half minute exposition, seemingly about little more than technique and texture. The second, deceptively named Lully Lullay, shows more feeling for the capabilities of each instrument but also suffers from aridity. One static theme plays itself out only to give rise to another. One waits for an idea, even a joke, but it is the humorless humor of academic music which carries the day. The musicians voice the hope that these pieces will have a life beyond this recording. In spite of their earnest championing of this brand new repertoire, I think they will not.

Gibbons’ Fantasia is densely polyphonic. It points us towards the organ literature of the next century. Then abruptly we are back in Shakespeare’s time with Tobias Hume’s Pavan. The album closes with one of the signature lyrics of Dowland In Darkness let me dwell. Once again, peace is restored.

There are many satisfactions to this marvelous recording, not least the sense of adventure and possibility as Early Music receives yet another infusion of imaginative reinvention. I would think this would appeal to all Early Music fans and any who enjoy seeing the accordion explore new horizons.

—Fritz Balwit