Elizabeth Kenny

Flying Horse: Music from the ML Lutebook

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This release may seem from the looks of it to be of a specialized kind. It's devoted, not to a selection of lute pieces devised by the performer, but to a single manuscript, the so-called ML Lutebook housed in the British Library. The name comes from the fact that the initials ML are stamped on the book's cover. That created a mystery of the sort that keeps musicologists in business; the initials are now thought not to refer to composer Matthew Locke (the book was assembled before he was born), but to a gentlewoman named Margaret, who wrote her name on some of the interior pages. It attests, in the words of lutenist Elizabeth Kenny, who writes her own booklet notes, to the "remarkable level of virtuosity . . . associated with private performance by women" in Jacobean England. Kenny suggests that the book might have been involved with lessons for one of these women, but she must have been a fearsomely talented student if so. The book contains pieces by various composers, written in at different times, with quite a number of anonymous pieces. The anonymous items are among the most virtuosic here, from the innocently titled John come kiss me now (track 4) to The Battle (track 8) and the lovely work that gives the album its title (which seems to refer to Pegasus), The Flying Horse. The book includes examples of most of the major French and English instrumental music genres of the time; in addition to these programmatic pieces there are pavans, galliards, other dances, and various expressions of lamenting. Among the named composers are Robert Johnson, Daniel Bacheler, and John Dowland, represented not by his hits but by such works as the entrancing A Gallyard upon the Gallyard Before. Kenny's playing is the biggest attraction, and one can hardly help agreeing with the reviewer quoted in the booklet who nominates her for mounting on the empty plinth in Trafalgar Square. Without inserting a strong personality into the music, she weaves a spell made up of equal parts effortless virtuosity in the fast passages and quiet elegance in the dances. Even the short dances are beautifully shaped miniatures in themselves. This album doesn't contain the famous examples of English lute music, and Kenny is not really a big-name lutenist. But it's one of the very best lute releases available. Kenny's notes, in English, French, and German, take up ornamentation procedures in some detail but are silent on the sonorous lute she plays; it's beautifully recorded, with minimal instrument noise, at one of the favorite spots of Hyperion's crack team of engineers, the concert hall at Wyastone Castle in Monmouth.

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