The Topping Tooters of the Town. Music of the London Waits 1580-1650 — The City Musick, dir. William Lyons— Avie, AV2364, 50:00 ****:
This recording of 30 tracks is a compilation of pieces—dances really—from the likes of Anthony Holborne, John Adson, Peter Philips, Thomas Morley, Thomas Ravenscroft, and John Playford. These are names I haven’t heard of late, but reading them right now I can think back to my music history classes. The music represents, according to the liner notes, the zenith of the town musicians in London around 1600 who performed in all sorts of public venues with wind instruments. You may have been exposed to this repertoire, as had I, through arrangements for brass ensemble. The City Musick, however, brings authenticity to this repertoire with recorders, cornetto, shawm, bagpipes, dulcian (a predecessor to the bassoon), and hoboy (early oboe).
The harmonies and sound world of these instruments certainly do speak of an earlier time. This music very much belongs to the Renaissance but in a time where the sophistication of instruments and the station of performers was on the verge of meeting the renown of vocal music. The character of these pieces does not betray the pragmatism from which they were born. Louder instruments carried indoors as well as outdoors. The pieces are each short, but would be repeated as long as necessary to fulfill their function as a musical backdrop.
The one thing missing from this recording is how the pieces would have evolved in repetition. Far less is known about performance practice then than what we know one hundred, if not two hundred years later in musical history. It may well be pragmatic today to avoid the unknown. In place of that, The City Musick have given us more variety with more pieces in this recording.
Each performance is impeccably played, no track left me in want of more. The variety of pieces ranges from stately and sonorous to fleeting and virtuosic.
Tracks 18-21 are settings of Psalms. While jarring at first to hear singing, the pieces well-illustrate the multiple roles the seventeenth-century musicians held. This is small-ensemble singing but it doesn’t betray the authenticity of a handful of musicians performing in consort for any number of civic, private, or religious functions.
My only real criticism of the disc is that listening to all the pieces back to back somewhat betrays how this music would have been heard. But that it is not unique to this disc, or this repertoire. Today we have the means to program our CD players (or our streaming servers) to devise our own concert programs in the luxury of our homes and easy chairs. This recording has confirmed my belief that this music, for as charming as it is, might be best explored in less sympathetic acoustics, live, in the company of others. I encourage you to enjoy this disc, but even more so to experience this repertoire live. The City Musick will not disappoint.