Organist at St Paul’s, composer for the Chapel Royal and ultimately Master of the King’s Music, Maurice Greene’s only fault, it would seem, was that he wasn’t Handel. His settings of Spenser’s Amoretti (little love sonnets) trace the poet’s courtship of his future wife and may be England’s first song cycle.
Each of these ditties comprise as many as five contrasting sections. Greene’s setting of Spenser is generally first rate and his response to emotional mood spot-on. The Merry Cuckow, for example, begins with a “trumpet shrill” fanfare that has more than a whiff of The Beggars’ Opera. He then falls into 3⁄4 time as the mood shifts towards love, yet still manages to set the birds name to the traditional “cuck-oo” notes. He can also rise to moments of great beauty, as in One Day I Wrote Her Name Upon The Strand with it’s drooping scotch snaps. It may not have the emotional through line of a Wintereisse, but the cycle ends effectively with three mournful reflections on absent love.
Benjamin Hulett’s light, focused voice and exemplary diction perfectly conveys the subtleties of Spenser’s texts. To vary the continuo, Giangiacomo Pinardi on the orbo joins Australian harpsichordist Luke Green in delicate arrangements. Between them, these fine musicians make an hour of music pass with pleasing variety.