This past Tuesday this site discussed a recent recording on Delphian of music from the Baldwin Partbooks. Most of the selections were vocal, performed by the Marian Consort; but there were “instrumental interludes” performed by the Rose Consort of Viols. It is therefore worth noting that four members of the Rose Consort, John Bryan, Alison Crum, Andrew Kerr, and Roy Marks, were featured on an album released by Delphian this past summer entitled Mynstrelles with Straunge Sounds: The Earliest Consort Music for Viols. While all of the vocal music on the Baldwin Partbooks album was sacred, this earlier album combines both sacred and secular solo songs with instrumental accompaniment. The vocalist is mezzo Clare Wilkinson.
The Rose Consort takes its name from John Rose, an instrument maker active as early as the middle of the sixteenth century, who passed his skills down to his son, John Rose, Junior. Curiously the instruments used on this recording were made by Roger Rose and the students he trains in a course on building early musical instruments at West Dean College in England. Finally, it is likely that most, if not all, of the “earliest consort music” on this album predated John Rose, Senior, probably coming from the first half of the sixteenth century, that same period of the earliest years of music printing. Thus, the sources for the selections come from both handwritten manuscripts and printed publications. Indeed, four of the tracks, two instrumental and two vocal, present the music of Josquin des Prez, who may well be the first composer whose music was reproduced in print.
For all but seriously dedicated specialists, Josquin’s name is likely to be the most familiar (if not the only familiar) name on the album. In this regard listeners should bear in mind that “making music” was rarely, if ever, a matter of personal identity during the first half of the sixteenth century. The function of the music, whether for sacred rite or secular entertainment, was more important than the maker.
Thus, what is more interesting on this album is the contrast between the instrumental and vocal selections. In the latter case clarity of the text tends to take the highest priority. While sixteenth-century pronunciation often tends to baffle the modern ear, one can easily appreciate the supportive role that the viols play, guiding the vocal line through harmonic progressions but always with subdued dynamics above which the voice rises. The instrumental selections, on the other hand, amount to experiments with counterpoint, particularly involving the give-and-take of motifs and/or melodies from one instrument to another.
Thus, the greatest virtue of this album may be the clarity that allows the listener to appreciate the individual instrumental voices. Each of the four instrumentalists on this album knows how to bring a distinguishably individual character to his or her part. Much of this is based on the different sizes of viols used in performance. (These were specified on a track-by-track basis on the recording of the Baldwin Partbooks but not in the booklet for this earlier album of “straunge sounds.”) However, beyond register each of the Rose Consort players takes an appropriate rhetorical stance that identifies his/her contributing voice without ever rising above the other three players; and this makes for consistently satisfying listening experiences.