The Cries of London – Theatre of Voices & Fretwork /Paul Hillier – Harmonia mundi
The Cries of London – Theatre of Voices & Fretwork /Paul Hillier – Harmonia mundi Multichannel SACD HMU 807214, 64:30 ***:
“[T]hese…dishes full of divers madrigals, the first fruits of my barren ground,
unripe…unsavory…not sweet…for presently the palate cannot give passage to his savory sentence. Therefore taste, and again I pray you, if they like your appetite, spare not my orchard; if they offend your stomach, lay them by to ripen, and you shall prove of my later vintage.”
— Thomas Weelkes, (Introduction to “Madrigals” 1597)
This offering from Paul Hillier is a collection of fantasia pieces based upon the cries of street vendors and other sundry work-a-day folks of the period. We are treated to city cries by Dering, Gibbons, and Weelkes, the en-Dering Country Cries, plus assorted other related pieces. As is always the case with Mr. Hillier, the results are top-notch and fare well against all comers.
True to their name, Theatre of Voices sings the “Cries” with rich characterization, and is set in contrast to the refined and well-articulated playing of the viol consort. This is most successful in the opening Cries by Gibbons and in the Dering Country Cries (the former is my new favorite performance). Thankfully, Hillier drops the raucous accents and pained intonation for a set of madrigals by the lesser-known Michael East (c.1590-1635) and the ever-popular Ravenscroft “The Three Ravens”. Special attention must be paid to the instrumental-only rendering of Gibbons’ “Go from my window” and also the “Fantasia a 4” where Fretwork positively shines. Well done, folks. (It should be noted that this is a completely new recording of the Gibbons works from Fretwork’s earlier Gibbons release: Gibbons: Cries and Fancies – Virgin Classics 7 90849-2 ****.
My qualms are mostly concerned with how these dishes are presented. These delightful pieces serve exceedingly well as character relief in an otherwise meaty concert. To consume an entire banquet of them is rather like having bon-bons for an hors d’œuvre, Les Truffes au Chocolat for the main course, and then cocoa with your chocolate mousse. Comparing and contrasting the relative presentations was certainly a novel experience, but I am not sure if I can do it again. Also, Mr. Pinto’s liner notes were simply indigestible.
The SACD captures the viols nigh-well perfectly, balancing the space and intimacy needed to portray these chamber instruments convincingly. The voices fare less well. Now, I am not one who normally appreciates exaggerated spatial effects in a 5.1 soundstage (I much prefer a natural capture of the concert acoustic). But if one is going to move performers around to serve a dramatic purpose – certainly understandable in some of these pieces – why not go whole hog and really move them through the 5.1 space? In a couple of cases, one of the singers suddenly seems to be singing from the rectory lavatory, then meanders back to the recording stage whilst singing, and then inexplicably stops short. [This effect seemed to work much better in the stereo layer than in 5.1.]
Given how familiar these pieces are in the repertory, I was surprised by the apparent dearth of available competition. For comparison, I needed to go back to vinyl and the venerable Grayston Burgess with his Purcell Consort of Voices, accompanied by the Jaye Consort of Viols (“English Secular Music of the Late Renaissance” – Candide CE 31005 ****), which stills wins my affection for the Dering “Country Cries” and especially the Weelkes “Cryes of London”. Burgess chooses to employ six voices and four viols in the Weelkes (my preference), whereas modern renditions tend to favor a solo voice. A very similar contribution from Les Sacqueboutiers (“The Cries of London” – Ambrosie AMB9965 [stereo CD] **) features taut and earnest performances with sackbuts instead of viols, yet in the end can never quite dispel the faint odor of their recent Scheidt offering. It fails to revel in the humor as well as Hillier. Who is thus recommended for audiophiles, fanciers of Fretwork, and those wishing to have all this literature well performed on one disc.
– Randy Haldeman