musica Dei donum

CD reviews

English music for viols

[I] Tobias HUME (c1569 - 1645): "'Harke, harke!' - Lyra Violls Humors & Delights"
Guido Balestracci, lyra viol, viola da gamba
Les Basses Réunis
rec: March 3 - 7, 2014, Vannes, La Chapelle des Carmes
Alpha - 197 (© 2014) (70'31")
Liner-notes: E/F
Cover & track-list

A Carelesse humor [1]; A humorous pavin [1]; A Jigge [1]; A Souldiers Galliard [1]; A Souldiers Resolution [1]; Alas poore men [1]; An Almayne - The Lady Canes Delight [2]; Start - The Lady of Sussex Delight [2]; Captaine Humes Galliard [1]; Faine would I change that note [1]; Good againe [1]; Harke, harke [1]; Loves farewell [1]; Musicke and Mirth - The Lady Hattons delight [2]; My Mystress hath a prettie thing [1]; Sweet ayre - The Earle of Arundels favoret [2]; The Earle of Pembrookes Galliard [1]; The Pashion of Musicke - Sir Christopher Hattons Choice [2]; The Spirit of Gambo [1]; This sporte is ended [1]; Tickell, tickell [1]; Tickle me quickly [1]; Touch me lightly [1]; Touch me sweetely [1]; What greater griefe [1]

Sources: [1] The First Part of Ayres, French, Pollish and others together ... with Pavines, Galliards, and Almaines, 1605; [2] Captaine Humes Poeticall Musicke ... so contrived, that it may he plaied 8. severall waies upon sundry Instruments with much facilitie, 1607

Bruno Cocset, treble viol, lyra viol; Richard Myron, consort bass; Bertrand Cuiller, harpsichord

[II] John JENKINS (1592 - 1678): "Musick for Two Basse Violls"
Wieland Kuijken, Roberto Gini, viola da gamba; Mario Martinoli, harpsichord, organ
rec: Oct 7 - 9, 2011, Presciano (Arezzo), Pieve di San Pietro
Et'cetera - KTC 1912 (© 2014) (71'47")
Liner-notes: E/F/I
Cover & track-list

Ayre and divisions for 2 viols and organ (RC 37); Ayre and divisions for 2 viols and organ (RC 38); Ayre and divisions for 2 viols and organ (RC 44); Ayre and divisions for 2 viols and organ (RC 45); Ayre and divisions for 2 viols and organ (RC 46); Ayre and divisions for 2 viols and organ (RC 63); Sonata for 2 viole da gamba and bc in d minor; Sonata for 2 viole da gamba and bc in G; [Suite] for 2 viole da gamba and bc in D [1]; [Suite] for 2 viole da gamba and bc in G [1]; [Suite] for 2 viole da gamba and bc in A [1]

[1] Durham Cath ms Mus D2

Today Tobias Hume and John Jenkins are considered two of the main composers of music for the viol and for viol consort of the English renaissance. That was very different in their own time. John Jenkins was one of the major figures in English music life. He left a large and versatile oeuvre of instrumental and vocal works and was highly respected by his peers. He was also described as an affable character and a true gentleman. Hume was an altogether different person. He was not a musician by profession; for most of his life he worked as a soldier. He only left two collections of music for viol, which includes some songs which can either be sung or played. It is striking that although he must have been one of the most skilled viol players of his time not a single document refers to him, except the preface to John Dowland's A Pilgrimes Solace, in which he is criticized for his allegedly offensive remarks about the lute. In the liner-notes to the Alpha recording Guido Balestracci states that "he was completely forgotten and denied any acknowledgment of his achievements. The publisher John Playford, who issued several collections of music for lyra viol in the second half of the seventeenth century, systematically omits the captain's name from the list of those who contributed to the development of the repertory in the early years of the century". Jenkins is buried in St Peter's Church in Kimberley, Norfolk, whereas Hume died in poverty and hasn't left any marks of his existence.

That is to say, except his two collections of music for the viol from which gambists and ensembles like to select pieces. Hume is certainly not badly represented on disc, although most recordings include often a number of the same pieces, and a complete recording is - as far as I know - not available. Hume was especially known for his music for the lyra viol. That is not a specific instrument, but rather a way of playing the viol. "'Lyra-way' was the expression used at the time to denote this style of writing for and playing the viol, with the word 'lyra' indicating the preponderance of chordal textures" (Balestracci). The music for the lyra-viol was notated in tablature. It shows the performer the position of the finger on the fingerboard but gives no indication as to the pitch of the notes. This explains that up to 60 different tunings were used for this kind of music. It also allowed to play on instruments of different sizes with the same tuning.

The two books by Hume largely include the same pieces, but the first of 1605 was less organised which may have made the composer to publish it again two years later. However, there was also a financial reason: the second book was dedicated to Queen Anne, and he described it as "the last hope of my labours". Although the pieces are first and foremost intended for the viola da gamba, Hume himself suggested alternative scorings, with ensembles of various instruments. This explains that recordings of this repertoire are often quite different. Recently Concerto Caledonia recorded a selection with a 'mixed consort'. In that recording Faine would I change that note, for instance, is performed as a song in which the voice is accompanied by various instruments. On the Alpha disc this piece is performed instrumentally. It includes some effects which I didn't hear in other recordings. I assume that pieces like these invite or even almost force the interpreters to add an element of improvisation.

Guido Balestracci and the ensemble Les Basses Réunis deliver engaging performances. Balestracci probably plays with stronger dynamic accents than I am used to hear in this repertoire, and his tempi are also on the fast side. A Souldiers Resolution is a kind of programmatic piece which comes off very well, and the short pieces which seem to refer to popular songs are also well done. Alas poore men is quite different, and with almost 9 minutes by far the longest. It is played beautifully, with the performers producing a fluent sound. This is Hume from a different angle. Well done.

Although the repertoire of the two discs is very different, there are some connections between them. In the booklets of both productions the liner-notes refer to the viola bastarda. Again, this is not a kind of instrument, but rather a playing technique, and more in particular a way to ornament a vocal piece. The article on viola bastarda in New Grove gives this definition: "A style of virtuoso solo bass viol playing favoured in Italy from about 1580 to about 1630, which condensed a polyphonic composition (madrigal, chanson or motet) to a single line, whilst retaining the original range, and with the addition of elaborate diminutions, embellishments and new counterpoint (...)". Although this technique could be applied to any instrument, the viola da gamba was particularly suited to this technique because of its wide range of three and a half octave.

Roberto Gini, in his liner-notes to the Jenkins disc, states: "The practice of improvising passaggi on a polyphonic texture (madrigal or motet) was maintained in England during the seventeenth century, but it was applied to new Airs that did not necessarily exist in tablature, as was the case with the viola bastarda repertoire. Pieces were subsequently reduced to a bass line only, or ground bass, on which the instrumentalist recreated a composition for several voices at the keyboard. On this new composition the viol player improvised his passages, which in their basic scheme were an elaboration of the initial Italian practice". This technique is explained by Christopher Simpson in his treatise The Division Viol.

Gini argues that both the lyra-viol and the division-viol are direct descendants of the viola bastarda. The former uses the tunings of the viola bastarda but - in contrast - applies them polyphonically and uses tablature notation. The division viol makes diminutions in viola bastarda style but uses the common tunings in fourths and a third. The interesting feature of this particular disc is that it is devoted to repertoire for two division viols. Gini mentions that the practice of passaggi for two viole bastarde is documented, but no pieces of this kind have been preserved. He believes that the English repertoire as played here gives some idea of what that kind of music in Italy must have been like.

Jenkins reached the exceptional age of 86 and saw the aesthetics change from the late Elizabethan era to the period we call 'baroque'. These changes left their mark in his oeuvre. This disc includes six sets of an ayre and divisions for two viole da gamba and organ. The latter doesn't play a basso continuo part; the composer only wrote down the upper and the bass part, and the organist had to fill in the two remaining parts. The basso continuo practice turns up in the fantasias and ayres - here put together in three suites) and the two sonatas for for two viole da gamba. The latter reflect the Italian practice of composing trio sonatas. The dance movements are inspired by the French style. It is impossible to assign a date to Jenkins' compositions. However, the French influence suggests that they were written after the Restoration as Charles II came back from his exile in France where he had become acquainted with the French style which he preferred to the traditional English 'fancies'.

The repertoire on this disc is fascinating and hardly ever played. At least I can't remember ever having heard it before. Wieland Kuijken, Roberto Gini and Mario Martinoli deliver outstanding performances. The interplay between the two viols attests to the superior craftsmanship of the composer and the perfect understanding between the two gambists. This is a disc to treasure and not to be missed by those who like English music for viols.

Johan van Veen (© 2015)

Relevant links:

Les Basses Réunis

CD Reviews