Theatre of the Ayre - The Masque of Moments - American Record Guide

The English masque of the early 17th Century was a rarified dramatic entertainment that Ben Johnson hoped would “lay hold on more remov’d mysteries”. While this may have been an unattainable ideal, the English nobility greatly enjoyed the mixture of poetry, drama, comedy, song, dance, and audience participation in the masque. During the Commonwealth there were few public opportunities for such lavish entertainments and Cupid and Death with music by Matthew Locke and Christopher Gibbons only could be performed in private to entertain the Portuguese ambassador in 1653.

Theatre of the Ayre attempts to recreate the sound of these court masques from the early 17th Century on this collection of songs by composers such as Thomas Campion, Giovanni Coperario, Alfonso Ferrabosco II, Robert Johnson, and Charles Colman, and dances selected from many different masques. Two excerpts, ‘From the heav’ns now I fly’ and ‘Sweet Echo’, are from Henry Lawes’s songs for John Milton’s Comus, first performed at Ludlow Castle in 1634. ‘Sweet Echo’ was first performed by 15-year-old Lady Alice Egerton, and is performed on this recording by an equally old Rosanna Wicks with appropriate innocence and elegance.

The 15 vocalists and instrumentalists of the Theatre of the Ayre are joined by 8 trebles and 3 lay clerks from the Salisbury Cathedral Choir, who stand in for the boys and men of the royal chapel. While not as large in number as the original performers or the ones used for the recording of Ben Johnson’s Masque of Oberon by the Musicians of the Globe (Philips 446 217), the Theater of the Ayre is similar in size to I Ciarlatani (N/D 1998:289), who reconstructed a masque written for the marriage of Count Palatine Friedrich V to Elizabeth Stuart in 1613. The group improvisation of the instruments on this new release, especially the four players of lutes (including Elizabeth Kenny) and harp, is especially impressive. In only one song, Ferrabosco II’s ‘Why stays the bridegroom’, the elaborate ornamentation found in a contemporary manuscript does not quite fit Nicholas Mulroy’s best tenor range. Otherwise, this is a very enjoyable sound picture of that lost world of the English masque.

American Record Guide
27 June 2017