The 'Terpsichore' collection of Michael Praetorius has been staple fare since the very start of the early music movement. And understandably so, for not only is it full of brilliant, varied and memorable tunes, but the composer-arranger left copious information for posterity on musical theory, performance and instrumentation.
The opening Passameze brings us a riot of renaissance instrumental sound - but, as the programme develops, it soon becomes clear that this is going to be a riot in the best possible taste. There are many distinguished names in Skip Sempé's ensemble - Doron Sherwin's cornetto, for example, making an especially distinctive contribution - and they perform the music with spirit, feeling and stunning virtuosity. The programming too is highly imaginative, with pieces by turns vigorous, delicate, catchy and affecting, arranged into four suites or Balli. Many devotees of the likes of David Munrow, Philip Pickett, Collegium Terpsichore, Piffaro, I Ciarlatani and other fine early-music directors and bands will find familiar Praetorius dances such as that same Passameze (track 1), Ballet des Matelotz (4), Gaillarde (6), Ballet des coqs (8), L'espagnollette (12), Bouree (23), Gavottes (24) and Volte (32). And it's all performed by the Capriccio Stravagante Renaissance Orchestra on a colourful variety of instruments, mostly playing in groups such as recorder consort, loud winds, viols, plucked strings and keyboard etc., rather than all at once. Sempé's direction is inspired, improvised ornamentation is brilliant, and the variety of pace, mood and texture all add to the enjoyment.
But this is only half the story. For, in addition to the quality of musicianship, it's the choice of music that really distinguishes this renaissance programme. Together with a fine selection from 'Terpsichore', Sempé also brings us some terrific pieces from Praetorius' contemporaries - the star among them, for me at least, being William Brade. This English composer spent his entire musical career in Germany and Denmark and, like Praetorius, also published substantial collections of instrumental works. We have eleven of those pieces here, and what fine music it is - especially the more substantial works such as the truly splendid Paduana I (track 13, shown in the booklet timings as 1'52 but actually 4'52), Canzon V (track 18) and Paduana VIII (track 26). Brade's music is absolutely lovely, especially in these performances, and I hope this ensemble will bring us more of his work in due course. We also get single pieces by Anthony Holborne, John Bennet and - yet another asset to the programme - a soulful, impeccably crafted Paduana by that cultured and creative aristocrat Moritz Landgraf von Hessen (1572-1632).
The recorded sound is excellent; there's no indication in the booklet as to where the recording was made but at one point, at the end of a track, there's an atmospheric intervention by church bells. The booklet brings us some interesting reflections on the music and its performance by Skip Sempé. Unfortunately, though, and not for the first time on the Paradizo label, there's also an unnecessarily fulsome essay in praise of the performers. Do we need this? - surely not, for we can hear their quality for ourselves; interestingly, once again our fellow music-lovers in the land of Praetorius are spared a German version of this eulogy - presumably they are protected by additional consumer legislation against health-hazardous hype.
That small point aside, this is a brilliant and deeply satisfying recording of renaissance dance music, in my view one of the best to appear for a long time. Michael Praetorius will already appeal to plenty of early-music fans but this programme also benefits greatly from an unusual and contrasting asset, namely the elegant, affecting gravity of the music of William Brade.