It's a privilege to review these two CDs by the York Waits. They're both very enjoyable, and 14 years ago William Marshall of the Waits reviewed my CD of music on many instruments, including bagpipes, here, so it's nice to be at the other end of the deal!
Both CDs demonstrate the York Waits' versatility and practised professionalism, both bring a gratifying variety of instruments, and of course, both come with informative and well-researched notes, including the point that as well as increasing street presence, the bagpipes still had prestigious players in Richard III's time.
If your ideal CD has end to end bagpipes with no distraction, these two might not be for you, but hopefully you'll be in a minority. To risk of being excommunicated, my heart sinks before track after track of entirely unrelieved piping - equally so of unrelieved harp, hurdy gurdy, or many other sounds I love, so it's nothing personal. The York Waits play a great range of instruments, and know how to create satisfying ensembles.
On each CD there is the lovely clean uncompromising blast of a shawm and sackbut band playing with superb intonation, through to another of my favourite sounds, the bray harp, and many more between. Each contrasts Haut and the Bas, the loud and the quiet instruments, in their own groupings. The first also includes songs.
The White Rose and the Red.
Music for the time of Richard III, still famous, still causing passionate arguments, despite his brief reign, and with his supporters in the city of York even now! We still have a cassette of the Waits playing music to the same brief, and it's interesting to see how things have developed since then. The line-up has partially changed. Over time the standard of playing is now even higher too. A really competent reviewer would now find the cassette for comparison. This reviewer, having spent an interesting but fruitless time looking through stacks of ancient cassettes, can't find it, so begs forgiveness. (For any younger readers, cassettes followed soon after the fall of vellum, parchment, and hand ground ink, but proved to have a less robust useful life span.) I can remember enough to say that, thoroughly enjoyable as that was, this collection's even better... though for piping fundamentalists, the new one has less piping, with pipes only on two tracks.
I'd love to review all 22 tracks, but that's not my brief here, so I'll just recommend that you hear the others too!
Petit Vriens is a sparkly dance tune, with thrice played sections as three dancers, or couples, move in turn in a sort of upmarket medieval Dashing White Sergeant. Led by fiddle, then gaining pipes, gurdy and pipe & tabor, the whole thing really lives.
Je suis d'Allemagne is first beautifully sung by Deborah Catterall, with a tasty harp accompaniment, followed by a complex arrangement of the time, the Waits producing that lovely rich organ-like quality of wide-bore of early recorders, then giving way to the gorgeous, warm sonority of four great Flemish Bagpipes, with a bass sound you could almost lie down on, first in unison, then in harmony. The quartet's tightness shows in great ensemble - sequences of repeated notes where all play identical gracings, for example - and a generally deeply satisfying result.
“Cherwell thy Wyne” (Show your Joy)
This is the result of collaboration between the Waits, mainly Lizzie Gutteridge and Tim Bayley, and Paul and Anne Kent, for the Dolmetsch Historical Dance Society who funded the CD. So it's not a piping CD as such, it's a realisation of music for dances in the Gresley MS, a Derbyshire source exciting the early dance world as it predates other known English choreographies by nearly 100 years. We first met it through Misericordia, with Gaita, who recorded their arrangements in 2003. Again it's music of the 15th century.
The MS gives 91 dance titles, 26 choreographies, and 13 melodies, but only 8 of the tunes match up with the dances. The Waits' job was to help bring all 26 dances to life, so as well as creating arrangements for the existing melodies, they had to compose material to fit the others. This they've done seamlessly, with Paul Kent also supplying some of the tunes, and Lizzie Gutteridge & Tim Bayley arranging everything.
It's dance music, and it dances. A feature of playing every tune in just about any collection is generally that some are better than others, but here they have to include everything, and when we played the game of trying to spot which tunes were newly composed, one tiny clue was that if the melody line was a little more formulaic, it was probably one of the old ones! The imaginative, appropriate arrangements make all the tracks rewarding, however.
Bagpipes play on 5 of the 28. The CD starts with shawms and sackbut, but ends with the pipes, a short cheerful piece called “Bayon”.
Another piping favourite here is “Damasyn”, with a really nice arrangement of a tune which turns out to be one of the new ones.
“Bugill”, a Tim Bayley original, has some very catchy syncopation between the piping parts. I don't know if the dance structure suggested this, but it's so period-authentic in its treatment I assumed it was 15th C until I looked!
Throughout, it's a very listenable CD. Some of the tracks seem a little brief, maybe; perhaps the dance is only short, perhaps the need to set each dance meant there wasn't room for more times through, but the variety and musicality of the settings make it work nicely whether you're an early dancer, an early music fan generally, or a piper who's liberated enough to listen to other instruments as well! I just wonder how long it'll be before the Waits get the compliment of other musicians playing their new tunes and assuring listeners with utter sincerity that they're definitely from this wonderful 15th century manuscript!
Both CD's are available from the York Waits' website at www.theyorkwaits.org.uk. The site also gives free pdfs of all the arrangements in the Gresley MS disc, and the DHDS site, http://dhds.org.uk, sells the book of choreographies.