The Queen's Goodnight

Signum Classics SIGCD020


An engagingly imaginative recital using unusual combinations of instruments.

The versatile trio of instrumentalists who form the core of Charivari Agréable treat us here to their own particular take on an Elizabethan tribute to the passing of a queen. Listening to this CD is very much like enjoying a private concert and it's a privilege indeed to be able to revisit the dawn of the 17th century in their company.

How do they achieve this sense of intimacy? Each of the players clearly enjoys being a soloist and yet all have taken trouble to arrange music to play with one another. 'Is that a good idea?', you may ask. The answer is deceptively simple: chamber musicians have always arrange music for private occasions according to their resources, yet when it comes to preserving it on CD, they (or their recording company) are suddenly reticent. Charivari Agréable, exceptionally, have always been adventurous; they have gone their own way. And, if the results have at times been mixed, they have at least learned from their experiments. They are all knowledgeable as well as skilled, and well equipped to offer the musical experience that is largely beyond the purview of the listening public. The sound engineering is superb as well.

One combination of instruments that may surprise and will surely delight listeners is that of the lute and keyboard. We are accustomed to hearing them together as continuo instruments, but when heard as a duo, sharing both the melodic and harmonic roles, they sound remarkably different and fresh. Kah-Ming Ng and Lynda Sayce have arranged the Dowland (though to have been originally intended for three lutes), the Johnson medley (which survives in both solo lute and solo keyboard versions) and Robinson's Twenty Waies upon the Bells (originally for two lutes).

In Allison's Knell, Ng takes charge of parts originally intended for flute, bass viol, cittern and bandora on the organ while Susanne Heinrich takes the treble viol part and Sayce the lute. Heinrich opens the CD with her skilful treble playing in Johnson's lively and infectiously jolly (if somewhat repetitive) dump, known as The Queen's Treble; listeners will also warm to her wistful rendition of Robin is to the Greenwood gone. Elsewhere, in the Tobias Hume selections, she plays the bass viol with considerable style and sensitivity. An engaging disc.

Early Music Forum of Scotland News

The ingenious focus of this CD is the death of Elizabeth I and the accessions of James Stuart to the throne of Great Britain, and Charivari Agréable's musical snapshot of this important period presents some familiar music as well as some little-known material. As is usual with this group, they treat their material relatively free from the point of view of instrumentation, and in the light of this it would be helpful to have a more comprehensive list of the sources and original instrumentation.

However, the performances work extremely well, and the duet for lute and virginals, often painted at the time but seldom reconstructed nowadays, is a genuine coup. As a Scottish reviewer I have to take the group to task slightly for their portrayal in music and in the programme notes of James VI as a 'hunting Celt', where Elizabeth is characterised as 'multi-lingual, highly talented and musical' – in fact James was all these things and more, and Elizabeth enjoyed hunting. I feat that his tendency to stereotype colours the group's arrangement of the anonymous Scots Huntsupe which closes the disc. While this is a good rip-roaring reading of the music, the references to 'the skirl of pipes at a ceilidh' is an anachronistic attempt to describe the adjacent home-and-away chordal system which characterises much early Scottish music, including the surviving church music. It is a salutary lesson on how, as soon as we start 'arranging' sources, our preconceptions as performers can colour our realisation of the music. The concluding track does indeed sound like a ceilidh, but largely because the performers think it sould. This is not however to detract from a very enjoyable and beautifully played disc.

The Consort

When I was asked to write something about Charivari's latest recording, I approached the task with some misgiving. The programme is built around the music associated with the death of Queen Elizabeth I, which sounded like a perfect excuse to indulge in the Woe and Dolefulness of which the Tudor musicians were so fond – understandably, indeed, given the pestilence and persecution and general precariousness of life at the time, and the genuine regret that must have been felt at the passing of so great a monarch. When Gripping Grief … Fortune my Foe … Mille Regretz … Semper Dowland, Semper Dolens … Forlorn Hope Fancy … Lachrimae (to take a handful at random): we could have had them all.

Not a bit of it! As the queen lay upon her deathbed, she summoned her musicians to play for her, so that 'she might die gaily as she had lived…she heard the music tranquilly until her last breath.' So wrote the Abbé Victorio Siri, some seventy years after the event.

We cannot now know which musicians attended the dying queen, or what they played for her, but this collection is a delightful anthology of pieces which might have cheered her on that last dark evening. We have John Johnson, one of the 'Musicians for the Three Lutes', with The Queenes Treble; Dowland's The Most Sacred Queene Elizabeth her Galliard; Thomas Robinson's The Queenes good Night (an apt title for the whole collection), and the exquisite melody of the ballad Robin, quoted by Ophelia in Hamlet: this had a particular resonance in the royal circle, where Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, was Elizabeth's own 'Sweete Robyn'.

There are dance tunes, like those of Edward Johnson's Medley, and a couple of Dumps: 'dumps' and 'thumps' are cheery basses taken from the popular music of the day, as grounds upon which flights of divisions might be improvised. And there are bells, courtesy of Richard Allison, Thomas Robinson and William Byrd.

Indeed, William Byrd's Bells welcome in the second theme of this anthology: the accession of James VI of Scotland to the English throne, and a look at some of the changing fashions of the Jacobean court. The music includes a beautiful Fantasia by Orlando Gibbons, and ends with a riotous Scottish Huntsupe (anon.) – a reminder from beyond the Border of King James' passion for country sports.

The three musicians, Susanne Heinrich, Kah-Ming Ng and Lynda Sayce, between them play treble, tenor and bass viols, virginals, harpsichord, chamber organ and lute, and deploy them expertly in an imaginative and varied programme, adapting the music as necessary to the forces available, as would certainly have been done at the time. It was interesting to hear Johnson's Medley, which survives in both lute and keyboard versions, as a duet for lute and virginals. The queen played both instruments, and they are frequently paired in paintings, but not often heard together. The effect is delightful.

I wondered how Lynda Sayce and her solitary lute would cope with two of my favourite lute duets, The Queenes good Night, from Thomas Robinson's Schoole of Musicke, and John Johnson's The New Hunt is Upp. The answer: a fine piece of Tudor double-tracking. In fact, duets are more entertaining with two players, both for the musicians and for the audience, who enjoy the interaction between the two personalities. There is even more fun to be had with Dowland's My Lord Chamberlain, His Galliard: an invention for two to play upon one lute. Dowland was not, after all, semper dolens.

This is a delightful collection, played with sympathy and evident enjoyment. Particular highlights are the beautiful setting of the poignant melody Robin, and the exciting carillon of William Byrd's Bells. And I found myself laughing out loud at the hilarious Scottish Huntsupe which concludes this anthology, with Charivari's improbable impersonations of the bagpipe.

It's certainly not news that Elizabethan England produced some profoundly enduring music. But here's yet another entry to the huge anthology of recordings that variously celebrate this rich, fertile period of artistic creation and innovation. Although you can't tell from the outer packaging, this is an instrumental program that features viols, virginals, harpsichord, chamber organ, and lute, performed by a trio of very proficient musicians known as Charivari Agréable. John Dowland, John Johnson, Giles Farnaby, and Tobias Hume are represented, along with William Byrd, whose notable harpsichord piece, The Bells, exploits the instrument's natural ringing tonal characteristics, juiced up with cascading runs and rapidly layered chords. The disc's title piece is a gentle lute lament on the death of the Queen, which flows seamlessly into Dowland's own commemorative galliard "The most sacred Queene Elizabeth". There's much to admire here, and nothing to admonish. It's just a finely organized, well-performed program that captures the spirit and character of instrumental music of a specific time and place--an indulgence for early music enthusiasts who already own many such collections, and a worthy introduction to this genre for anyone new to this repertoire.

Oxford Today—Alumni Magazine of the University of Oxford, Hilary Term 2003

Just space to mention The Queen's Goodnight, the latest from Oxford's excellent Charivari Agréable (SIGCD020). This disc focuses on Elizabethan and Jacobean music for Charivari's lute, viol and keyboards, and it's as vital as we've come to expect from them. Hume's Deth and Life is a viol highlight, and Lynda Sayce's lute solos are all wonderful. Folkies might also like this music.

Viola da Gamba Society (UK) Newsletter No. 119, 10/02

From the very first chord, this CD has a wonderful feeling of three talented musicians (Susanne Heinrich, Kah-Ming Ng & Lynda Sayce) really enjoying themselves. Even when it isn't happily bubbling on the surface, one imagines a contagious merriment they are scarcely able to contain, and which seems, by the end, to have carried you right through the eighteen tracks. It is only on subsequent replays that one remembers too the sublime, Robin is to the Greenwood Gone, its lute accompaniment contributing equally to the viol's lyricism, and Hume's hauntingly beautiful Lamentations, the clear texture of both plucked and bowed strings mixed with the organ to create a surprisingly blended sonority. There are tracks too that are more sobering in their demands upon the listener. But gone (at least for the time being) are the days when I could listen to LPs over and over and over, knowing every blemish as well as every musical strand; and, for this CD (as every other) it is copied onto tape to be played in my car, in direct competition with the demands of traffic. I mention this because, although London traffic has seemed much lighter since I began listening to the tape, even after a dozen listenings, Hume's Deth and Life (a truly sobering piece), with the distorted pulse characteristic of lyra-way playing, remained a complete mystery until I had time to sit down at home and give it a fair chance; and the tape has always ended with the driving pulse from the over--enthusiastic rhythm-section (at this point a relatively closely-miked lute and viol) almost completely obscuring the keyboard's closing jigg. In the case of the jigg, not even a traffic free environment does much to reveal the keyboard – the players' exuberance, for the closing minute or so, no longer allowing for such niceties as balance; and as for lyra-way, I am afraid it still remains at least a partial mystery. I have never been a lyra-viol fan, and not even this brilliantly played collection of beautiful sounds can make up for my memory's inability to keep track of the plot – the rhythms are too wayward, the phrases too disconnected. The Corkine lyra piece on the other hand, cleverly combined with, and kept in check by, Gibbons's keyboard variations, is much more successful. It is an example of the imaginatively adventurous arrangements that is one of the characteristics of this entertaining group and which, with the cleverly planned running order, makes this CD so delightfully accessible. The Queen's goodnight is a must, even for those without memory sufficient to follow lyra-way or money to afford a car with a decent sound system.

BBC Music Magazine

This recording could well have borne the subtitle 'Three musicians in search of a repertoire'. The members of Charivari Agréable, who between them play lute, bass viol and keyboard, here explore English music from the decades around Queen Elizabeth I's death in 1603. Yet not a single work for that particular mix of instruments survives from the time, a problem they solve by arranging, adapting, substituting and peppering the proceedings with solo pieces by Byrd, Dowland, Gibbons and Tobias Hume. Only purists will object to the result, which is so delightful it makes you wonder why the Elizabethans themselves never thought of writing trios for this combination. Best of all to my ears is Richard Allisons 'Knell', originally for a mixed consort of flute, viols and plucked instruments, which Charivari Agréable exquisitely simulates with the aid of a chamber organ. Pieces by Johnson and Robinson originally for two lutes work well when one part is played pizzicato on the viol. As for the ballad tune 'Robin is to the greenwood gone', played on bass viol with imaginative keyboard backing, its soulful sound melts the listener's heart. In sum, a delightful disc, and a treasure trove of pieces that are very rarely heard.

Performance: **** (4/5) [very good]

Sound: ***** (5/5) [excellent]

Queen Elizabeth I brought together the finest talent in the land and created collections of consort, lute and keyboard music that are still renowned today. Charivari Agréable have arranged for their core trio music that depicts the life of the queen: "music from the court, an exhilarating depiction of a hunt, celebrations from the queen's coronation and the moving laments on her death" (Sayce). If—depending upon your age—your pulse quickens at the mention of the legendary Cortot/Thibaud/Casals, the Beaux Arts Trio or, say, the Guarneri Trio Prague or Gould Piano Trio of today, allow yourself to consider, in a fully comparable bracket of excellence, Oxford's multinational Heinrich/Ng/Sayce Trio.

You will not be thinking upon those lines if you rely upon Radio 3, as Colin Booth complains in a well argued article in 'Early Music Review' about institutional bias which downgrades early music expertise. Yet readers of S&H will know that I have regularly extolled the work of Charivari Agréable, a musical jewel in Oxford's crown. Often these players are joined by others to form larger ensembles; here they play solo, duo and trio changes on viols (treble, tenor and bass), virginals, harpsichord, chamber organ and seven-course lute. This ensures textural variety in mainly shortish pieces by ten composers plus the ubiquitous anon (the longest is Hume's Lamentations at seven mins) and they cover the whole gamut of emotions. I did need to alter the volume once between tracks, and there is a minor discrepancy between track numbers on my review copy (correct in the insert). All three are formidable academics as well as being sensitive multi-instrumental virtuosi, and presentation is comprehensive as usual with this series, including details of all the instruments (modern copies) and with an interesting essay by Linda Sayce about the death of Queen Elizabeth I and the transition from Tudor to Jacobean epochs.

Peter Grahame Woolf

Music in England came alive under the reign of Elizabeth I. Not only did the Queen herself play music, but her love for music fostered one of the most vibrant periods of musical creation and variety in any European country. New genres were created or refined: the "lyra way", solo viol music, virginal music, the song for lute and voice, and consort music for groups of viols. While some of these forms existed before the Queen's reign, they developed so much under her patronage that they are now identified with this period.

This disc contains a selection of instrumental works from the period, by both well-known composers (Byrd, Hume, Dowland, Farnaby) and others who have left less of a mark on musical history. Charivari Agréable is one of Britain's finest small early music ensembles, and the attention they pay to the music, as well as their choice of works for this disc, is exemplary.

The music here ranges from the melancholy, almost Irish-sounding anonymous tune for viol and lute Robin is to the Greenwood gone, which has a haunting, poignant melody, to solo works by the great viol composer Tobias Hume, to keyboard works by Gibbons and Byrd. The music is played alternately by solo instruments, or by combinations of two or three of the musicians: solos for lute, harpsichord, organ or viol, are followed by ensemble pieces in a well-chosen order. What stands out in this disc is the overwhelmingly lachrymose tone (if one may use that word) that pervades this music. While this was a period of excitement and energy, the music often tends to have a sad sound.

This is a wonderfully varied programme of music, played by brilliant musicians. Both the selection of the music and its performance is moving and admirable. This is a fine disc for those who appreciate Elizabethan music, or a superb introduction for those interested in discovering its riches.

Early Music News

Working through the pile of CD's which had arrived for possible review, it was tempting to put The Queen's Goodnight to one side, despite my memories of the quality of Charivari Agréable's last CD The Sultan and the Phoenix. A selection of late sixteenth century music for viol, lute and keyboard did not seem very exciting. Then I listened to it. Once again, Charivari Agréable have turned seemingly unpromising material into gold.

The point of departure for The Queen's Goodnight is the 400th anniversary of the death of Elizabeth I, which falls in March 2003. The story of her end is simple. "The bishop kneeled down by her, and examined her in her faith: and she so punctually answered... as it was a comfort to all beholders." The Bishop told her that she had been a good Queen for 45 years on earth, "yet shortly she was to yield an account of her stewardship to the king of Kings".

It could so easily have been very different. With social conventions which meant that she could not ride at the head of an army to quell rebellion, no children to give in marriage to cement alliances abroad, and a constant buffeting from the upheavals of the Reformation, her reign could easily have ended in failure. One of the many secrets of her success was skillful use of the royal court: attendance was more-or-less essential for those with political ambition, and she, and her entourage, were able to demand the financially ruinous hospitality of any noble who showed signs of disloyalty.

It is tempting to be dismissive of the late sixteenth century secular music, not least because it is often plundered as a source of "simple" music which is easy to play. But the social context should ring a warning bell. Highly capable people dancing attendance on a cultivated and capricous queen were bound to cultivate the arts, both as a diversion, and as a non-political means of attracting attention. The only reason for this music to seem "easy" is that the sources which come down to us are often the skeletons on which the music was built, and not the totality.

Here is where the skills and musicianship of Charivari Agréable start to shine. In their hands this selection of pieces works extremely well and makes very rewarding listening. The vivacious first track sets the stage — Susanne Heinrich's treble viol has the richness and life which people often say can only be achieved on a violin, while Kah-Ming Ng and Lynda Sayce step in turns between continuo-like playing and a conversation with the top part.

One of the many surprises of the CD is Tobias Hume's Deth and Life for solo viol, which has a haunting beauty and can hold its own with the finest of the French viol repertoire from a century later.

In other hands, a series of four tracks for solo lute in the middle of a CD could be a mistake, but superb playing makes this a magical moment. The next track, for solo harpsichord, fits the sequence beautifully. It's also clear that Kah-Ming Ng's playing on this track is entirely consistent with other places where he is (presumably) improvising. Reviewers of other Charivari Agréable CDs have complained at an over-active right hand. I don't agree, and find his additions valuable and entirely tasteful. The case is even stronger in pieces for organ, viol and lute, where sensitive right-hand work allows all three instruments to move in and out of focus effectively.

I've really enjoyed this CD. Fertile imagination, excellent musicianship, and persuasive playing make it a real delight across the full spectrum of emotions from the brightness of The Scottish Huntsupe & Jigg to Robinson's The Queenes Good Night.

There was an ancient Chinese custom which said that it was important to make a raucous noise when someone died, encouraging them to go on their way and not linger as a ghost. If Charivari Agréable had been playing this music at the death-bed of Elizabeth I, she might have stayed around...

Early Music Today

The 400th anniversary of the death of Elizabeth I in March of this year will be marked by the arts and media, and the ability of music to stir up the 'melancholia Britannica' that characterised the latter part of Elizabeth's reign will give it a pre-eminence in the commemorations. The recording companies have been preparing their offerings for this celebration of Elizabeth and the English ars moriendi.

In The Queen's Goodnight Charivari Agréable has assembled a thoughtful and entertaining selection of instrumental compositions and modern arrangements, taking as its point of departure an account of Elizabeth's last hours which describes how her musicians played until her last breath that 'she may die as gaily as she had lived'. From the fine premise for a varied programme the group has assembled a selection that majors in pieces featuring bell motifs, including Robinson's Twenty waies upon the bels and Byrd's The bells; as well as pieces on the theme of death like Allison's Knell and Farnaby's Rest, but leavens the sweet sorrow with graveside humour in dumps and huntups 'to lessen the horrors of death'.

The trio as ever draws on a wide variety of original sources to suit the music to the considerable range of mood and tone possible from its combination of viols, lute and keyboards, though I particularly enjoyed the original solo items, like Susannah Heinrich's moody playing of Hume's Deth and Life for lyra-viol. In their clarity of sound and interpretation these performances can give flight to the listener's imagination to the Elizabethan epitome of 'merry melancholy'.

Viola da Gamba Mitteilungen, No. 49, March 2003

Die Musik hatte für Königin Elisabeth I von England zeitlebens eine ganz zentrale Rolle gespielt. Während ihrer 45-jährigen Regentschaft hatte sie durch eine kluge Politik und mit viel diplomatischen Geschick England aus einer rückständigen Provinz zu einer großen Seemacht geformt. Gleichzeitig hatte sich auch das kulturelle Leben, besonders im Bereich der Musik, zu einer einmaligen Hochblüte entwickeln können. Nicht umsonst spricht man vom "Goldenen Zeitalter".

Das Programm dieser CD umfasst Werke von Komponisten, die dem Hof der Königin nahestanden, obwohl nur wenige Instrumentalstücke explizit der Regentin gewidmet worden sind. Das Ensemble Charivari agréable (Susanne Heinrich, Kah-Ming Ng und Lynda Sayce) präsentiert auf bekannt höchstem Niveau u.a. Kompositionen von Allison, Byrd, Corkine, Dowland, Hume. Susanne Heinrich erweist sich erneut als eine hochbegabte Gambistin. Makellose Technik und schöner Klang verbinden sich bei ihr mit großem musikalischem Gestaltungswillen. Aber auch Lynda Sayce (Laute) und Kah-Ming Ng (Cembalo, Virginal und Truhenorgel) erweisen sich als absolut ebenbürtige Partner von Susanne Heinrich.

Es ist ein Vergnügen zu hören, wie ein kleines, aus nur drei Spielern bestehendes Ensemble eine solche Vielfalt erzielen kann. Dazu gehören neben den genannten Qualitäten aber auch eine zündende Programmidee und eine geschickte Auswahl der eingespielten Werke. Eine Spezialität, durch die sich das Ensemble charivari agréable immer wieder auszeichnet, wie auch die vielen anderen ihren wunderbaren CD-Produktionen zeigen.


Susanne Heinrich - viols; Lynda Sayce - lutes; Kah-Ming Ng - virginals & chamber organ

Johnson: A Dump, A Medley, The New Hunt is Upp; Dowland: A Pavion Solus cum sola, The most sacred QE her Galliard; Anon: Robin, Arthere's Dump,  The Scottish Huntupe & Jigg; Alllison: Alllison's Knell; Robinson: 20 waies upon the bels, The Queenes Good night; Farnaby: Rest; Hume: Lamentations, Deth and Life; Byrd: The Bells; Gibbons: Fantasia; Corkine & Gibbons:

Whoope doe me no harme