musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Alfonso FERRABOSCO II (c1575 - 1628): "Ayres & lessons for the Lyra Viol"

Monique Zanetti, soprano
A Deux Violes Esgales

rec: April & May 2013, Paris
Arion - ARN68831 ( 2014) (73'22")
Liner-notes: E/F
Cover & track-list

Almaineb [2]; Almainec [2]; Almained [2]; Almaine 2 violsbc [2]; Come my Celia [1]; Corantob [2]; Corantoc [2]; Corantod [2]; Coranto 2 violsbc [2]; Dovehouse pavinc [2]; Drown not with tearsad [1]; Fly from the world [1]; Gaillardc [2]; Gaillard 2 violsbc [2]; I am a loverabd [1]; If all these cupids now were blind [1]; Like the hermit poor [1]; Preludeb [2]; So leave off [1]; Why stayes the bridegroom [1]; Young and simple [1]

Sources: [1] Ayres, 1609; [2] Lessons for 1. 2. and 3. Viols, 1609

Sylvia Abramowiczb, lyra viol, treble viol; Jonathan Dunfordc, lyra viol, bass viol; Thomas Dunfordd, lute

The decades around 1600 were a golden age in England, and that goes certainly for music. Many collections of vocal and instrumental works were printed. One of the composers who was active is this period was Alfonso Ferrabosco II. It seems that in today's performance practice he is more or less overshadowed by composers such as William Byrd or John Dowland. In many years of attending concerts I have seldom heard music from his pen and I have never reviewed any disc devoted to his music. The present disc by the ensemble A Deux Violes Esgales is the first which has landed on my desk, and that is a reason to celebrate as his music turns out to be of excellent quality.

Ferrabosco was born in Greenwich as the eldest (illegitimate) son of Alfonso Ferrabosco I, an Italian composer who first came to England in 1562 and in the subsequent years travelled back and forth between England and Italy. Apparently it is not known from whom he received lessons on the viola da gamba, but he must have developed pretty quickly into a highly-skilled musician: in the early 1590s, when he was probably not yet 20 years old, he already received an annuity as "musitian of the violles" from Queen Elizabeth. However, he probably did not play a major part in court performances, and only in 1602 he was given an official position. In the next years he acted as the teacher of Prince Henry, for whom he also bought viols. In 1605 The Masque of Blackness was performed, on a text by Ben Jonson, for which Ferrabosco wrote the music. It was the first of many contributions to the genre of the court masque.

This music has all been lost, except a number of songs, some of which found a place in the collection of Ayres of 1609, scored for one or two voices, accompanied by lute and viola da gamba. Why stayes the bridegroom is a specimen of such a song, and it is interesting that it has also been included in a source in which embellishments have been added. These could well be the kind of embellishments sung during the performances of the masque from which it is taken. The song is performed twice here: first as it is printed in the edition of 1609, and then with the embellishments. The latter are clearly Italian in character and suggest that the performances were influenced by contemporary Italian fashion. It is reasonable to assume that Ferrabosco's Italian roots had something to do with that. Some of his other compositions, for instance his madrigalette, show his interest in Italian music.

However, Ferrabosco was especially famous as a player of the viola da gamba. According to New Grove he "was arguably the most accomplished, innovative and influential composer of chamber music for viols". He composed pavans, galliards, fantasias and In Nomines which are dominated by counterpoint. His own skills as a player come especially to the fore in his compositions for the lyra viol. This is not so much a specific instrument but rather refers to the viola da gamba played the lyra way. Such music was written down in lute tablature which allowed the use of different tunings and the playing of chords. In 1609 Ferrabosco published his book Lessons for 1. 2. and 3. Viols. The term "lessons" doesn't indicate that this was an educational work; "lesson" just means "piece". It is the earliest publication which is exclusively devoted to music for the lyra viol. Most pieces are dances in pairs: a pavan, galliard or alman followed by a corant. That is also the way most pieces on this disc are performed. Some of these are remarkably long: the Dovehouse pavin takes a little over seven minutes here and the Gaillard for one lyra viol six and a half.

The fact that this disc is entirely devoted to Ferrabosco II is interesting enough in itself, but its importance goes further in that several aspects of performance practice are scrutinized here. In his liner-notes Jonathan Dunford refers to data discovered recently regarding the size of viols at the time which are different from what is common today. The instruments played here are a little different, but it is probably up to those with an intimate knowledge of the viol to notice the difference. Dunford also refers to a source with information regarding the tempi of various dances.

Taking all things into consideration this disc has to be rated as a major contribution to our knowledge of music in the Elizabethan era. The songs are of a high quality and deserve more attention. Unfortunately I can't tell what they are about as the lyrics are not included in the booklet which is a serious omission. Monique Zanetti sings them very well; although she uses a little more vibrato now and then than is tenable, she keeps it better in check than on other discs I have heard. Two pieces are played in arrangements for lute which is in line with a source from the 17th century. As far as the viol pieces are concerned: it is not so easy to get a grip on them - they require attentive listening. But that is greatly rewarding, especially if they are played so beautifully as here by Jonathan Dunford and Sylvia Abramowicz. The duets are especially noteworthy as there are not that many recordings of pieces for two viols played the lyra way.

Johan van Veen ( 2014)

CD Reviews