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"Four Temperaments"

Dir: Laurence Dreyfus

rec: August 19 - 21, 2004, South Creake, Norfolk, St Mary's Church
AVIE - AV2054 (© 2005) (72'09")

William BYRD (c1539-1623): Missa a 4; Pavan & Galliard a 6; Queen's Goodnight (Prelude and Ground); Alfonso FERRABOSCO I (1543-1588): Fantasia a 4; In nomine I a 5; In nomine II a 5; In nomine III a 5; Pavan a 5; Sur la Rousée (Fantasia a 6); Robert PARSONS (c1530-1571): A Song called Trumpets; A song of Mr Robert Parsons; In nomine III a 5; De la court; Ut re mi fa sol la; Thomas TALLIS (c1505-1585): A Solfing Song; In nomine I a 4; In nomine II a 4

Laurence Dreyfus, treble viol; Wendy Gillespie, treble viol, tenor viol; Jonathan Manson, tenor viol; Markku Luolajan-Mikkola, bass viol; with: Asako Morikawa, tenor viol, bass viol; Emilia Benjamin, bass viol

"It was Hippocrates who, in the Nature of Man, first identified the four temperaments so as to help diagnose illness. Corresponding to four essential bodily 'humours' or fluids (...) a patient was treated based on the humour the physician reckoned to be most dominant. The temperament also evoked one of the four types of personalities." Thus Laurence Dreyfus begins his liner notes to Phantasm's recording of music for viol consort by four composers of the English renaissance: Tallis, Parsons, Byrd and Ferrabosco I. He then identifies the 'temperaments' which were most characteristic of them. Tallis is the sanguinic, reflected by the optimistic character of his music. Parsons is the choleric, who is quick to anger. Melancholy, which leads to sadness, is a feature of Byrd, whereas Ferrabosco is the phlegmatic, who is unshakeable. These features are represented by the choice of pieces by the respective composers in this programme.

I am not sure about the relationship between the four temperaments and music. I have looked into several encyclopedias and music books, and couldn't find any reference to 'temperament' in the sense it is used here. I also think it is highly speculative to link a composer's personality to his music. If a composer in the Elizabethan era writes a lot of melancholic music, this doesn't necessarily mean he is a melancholic person himself, as melancholy was much in vogue at the time.

I hasten to add that Laurence Dreyfus is nuancing his characterisation of composers in terms of temperament himself, when he writes: "Naturally, the emotions expressed in any given piece are too complex to be reduced to one humour and none of my attributions are meant as all-embracing. In fact, all four composers modulate skilfully between the temperaments, just in different ways. All people, according to this way of thinking, are subtle admixtures of the humours."

As a consequence the 'four temperaments' seem to me little more than a stepping-stone to present very different kinds of music for viol consort as composed in the English renaissance. If it was Phantasm's goal to demonstrate how varied the repertoire for viol consort was, then they have succeeded quite brilliantly. Listening to the pieces which are based on the famous In nomine theme, for instance, one is impressed by the many ways composers have dealt with it.

An interesting aspect of this recording is the performance of Byrd's Missa a 4. It is noted in the booklet that it wasn't unusual in those days to perform vocal music with instruments only. It is a tribute both to the quality of the composition as to the level of playing that the content of the mass comes through very clearly in this instrumental performance. The sections of the mass are interspersed by settings of In nomine - the theme of which comes from John Taverner's Missa Gloria tibi Trinitas -, creating a kind of liturgical setting.

Another item which particularly pleased my ears is the first piece of the programme, Tallis's A Solfing song, which was originally written for viol consort, but has a strongly vocal character, and could easily be sung on a given text. Another fine piece is Robert Parsons's A Song called Trumpets, with its fanfare-like motifs. He was the most experimental of these four composers, and puts the performers to the test in his Ut re mi fa sol la: "The texture becomes 'untamed' in a moment of panicked frisson when all four players enter a distinct time zone (...), each forced to count in a way which disrupts the others. (...) The piece became addictive once we made it to the end without 'falling off' the ever-present precipice. Which took a good while." It is good to know that they are human after all.

This recording is an impressive addition to the growing list of brilliant recordings by Phantasm, many of which have received or have been nominated for awards. I think this recording is another good candidate for an award, as the playing is outstanding. The sound is crisp and clear, and yet warm and vibrant. The melancholy of some pieces is just as well realised as the more joyful works, where the ensemble displays a strong sense of dynamics and rhythm. In short, this disc presents English consort music in its full glory.

Johan van Veen (© 2005)

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