Often, classical musicians (especially those of us in Symphony Orchestras) spend most of our time listening to and performing Classical, Romantic, and Modern music, while ignoring music from earlier eras (with the exception of J.S. Bach). Yet there is so much wonderful early music out there! I've found some exciting artists and pieces I'd never heard before. Here's some excellent examples.
1. Marin Marais: Pièces de viole, Book 5
I found this CD collection at Half Price Books, and I've been listening to them like crazy. The bass viol, Marais' instrument of choice, has sloping shoulders and a flat back, which distinguish it from the members of the violin family we use today (with the exception of string bass). It's slightly smaller than a cello, and has seven strings which are tuned in fourths instead of fifths (with a third between the middle strings). Marais' music is by turns haunting and light-hearted. The structure of the movements from his viole suites is similar to Bach's cello suites, but Marais always includes a basso continuo part, and often has several viols playing a consort. It's gorgeous music, somehow evocative of the 16th century while remaining timeless.
2. English Lute Song
This is another discovery from Half Price Books (I must be seriously supporting their early music sections). This CD is by Julianne Baird and Ronn McFarlane, and has lovely, expressive female vocals over delicate lute accompaniments. Baird has a purity of tone and intonation I love, yet she sings elaborate ornaments with seeming ease. The lyrics of the songs are all in English, which gives the listener a chance to enjoy their poetry and occasional humor. While some of these songs are anonymous, others were written for and performed as part of Shakespeare's plays, including the “Willow Song” from Othello and “Come Away, Hecate” from Macbeth.
3. Henry Purcell's Dido and Aeneas
This is probably the most frequently heard and performed of all the pieces I'm mentioning here. Yet, while Dido's heart-breaking Lament is rightfully part of the repertoire, I've rarely ever heard any of the rest of the opera. It was surprising to hear the variety of singing styles Purcell uses to tell his story, with the witches having a completely different timbre than Dido. Yet, the whole opera gives the famous tragic aria greater pathos—Dido's disillusionment and sorrow reflect not only a broken heart, but the realization that Aeneas is a coward. His devotion to duty is only an excuse to avoid the true power of love (in this version of the tale).