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Folger Consort explores the tunes of 17th-century London

By Charles T. Downey,

The Folger Consort is presenting a musical tour of five European cities for its 35th season of concerts of early music. On Friday night, it began with a delightful survey of music in early 17th-century London, quite appropriately for a historically informed performance ensemble based at the Folger Shakespeare Library.

Most of the credit for this concert’s success is due to the dulcet voice, rarefied diction, and pure intonation of tenor Aaron Sheehan. He excelled most artfully in the exquisite songs of John Dowland and Tobias Hume, accompanied simply by lute and bass viol, and in one case with choral parts sung quietly by the instrumentalists. Sheehan’s is a voice one is content to listen to all by itself, as he showed in an unaccompanied version of “The Northern Lasses Lamentation,” the most innocent of three less-than-lofty Broadside ballads. Sheehan’s polished rendition of “The Cries of London” by Thomas Weelkes, a learned musical tapestry of barked sales pitches of the city’s street vendors, gave the impression of the most sophisticated marketplace in all of Europe, but in a way that only enhanced the humorous contrast of high and low. To make a town crier sound so cultivated when bellowing a request for information about a lost mare “with a great hole in her arse” is an achievement indeed.

The instrumental contributions were not as uniformly refined, with some rough patches from the strings. Multi-instrumentalist Tom Zajac struggled uncharacteristically on transverse flutes but had better luck on recorders, especially when combined with the mellow consort of viols in Hume’s “Passion of Musicke” and Anthony Holborne’s hypnotic “Cradle Pavan.” As always, Zajac’s boisterous turn on the bagpipe, here in “The London Gentlewoman,” was a highlight.

Downey is a freelance writer.

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