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Richard MICO & John JENKINS: Consort music

[I] Richard MICO (c1590 - 1661): "Pavan & Fancies for the Viols"
Concerto di Viole
rec: July 13 - 15, 2019, Basel, Sacr-Coeur
Ars Produktion - ARS 38 570 ( 2020) (61'10")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Fantasia 1 2; Fantasia 1 3; Fantasia 3 3; Fantasia 5 3; Fantasia 7 3; Fantasia 3 4; Fantasia 5 4; Fantasia 6 4; Fantasia 10 4; Fantasia 1 5; Fantasia 2 5; Fantasia 3 5; Fantasia 4 5; In Nomine; Latral; Pavan 2 4; Pavan 3 4; Pavan 4 4; Pavan 1 5; Pavan 2 5; Pavan 3 5

Brian Franklin, Rebeka Rus, Brigitte Gasser, Tore Eketorp, Arno Jochem, viola da gamba; Matthias Spaeter, archlute; Johannes Strobl, organ

[II] John JENKINS (1592 - 1678): "Consort Music for Viols in Five Parts"
The Spirit of Gambo
Dir: Freek Borstlap
rec: May & Sept 2018, Haarlem, Doopsgezinde Kerk
Musica Ficta - MF8030 ( 2019) (66'39")
Liner-notes: E/D/F/NL
Cover, track-list & booklet

Fantasias I - XVII

Freek Borstlap, Liam Fennelly, Gesina Liedmeier, Ivanka Neeleman, Thomas Baet, viola da gamba

At a time when across Europe a new style emerged, which we use to call 'Baroque', the music scene in England was still very much dominated by the stile antico, whose foundation was counterpoint. Consort music was one of the genres in which the preference for counterpoint manifested itself. Ensembles of instruments of the same family were quite popular, and although consort music could be played by an ensemble of recorders or by instruments of different families (the so-called 'broken consort'), the consort of viols was by far the most common formation for the performance of such music. The consort repertoire written in England dates from the mid-16th century to around 1660, when the monarchy was restored. King Charles II, returning home from exile in France, preferred the kind of music he had become acquainted with on the continent, and disliked the 'fancy', as one of the most popular genres of consort music, the fantasia, was generally called. And that is the genre which takes a prominent place in the oeuvres of the two composers who are the subject of the discs under review here.

Whereas John Jenkins is a household name and well represented on disc, only those with a special interest in consort music may have heard of Richard Mico. His family came from northern France, where his family name was spelled as Micault; they seem to have settled in England about a century before Richard made a career as a player of the viol and composer of consort music. Nothing is known about his education; the first signs of his musical activities date from 1608, when he was appointed resident musician at Thorndon Hall, Essex, the seat of John, first Lord Petre, whose son Sir William Petre was Mico's employer. His main task was the musical education of the family's children, but he was probably also expected to write music which members of the family could play on the viols they owned: two trebles, two tenors and a bass.

The Petre family was Catholic, and had close ties to William Byrd, who wrote a piece of consort music in honour of Sir William (The Pavan and Galliard Sir William Petre), who acted as the composer's patron. He stayed out of politics, which prevented him from being the subject of persecution. However, it seems likely that secret masses were performed at Thorndall Hall, and Byrd may have written some of his Latin church music for such events. The presence of a consort of viols raises the question whether these may also have been played during mass. Mico, who was a Protestant, converted to the Catholic faith during his time at Thorndon Hall. This may have resulted in his being appointed organist to Queen Henrietta Maria, the French wife of King Charles I, who openly practised Roman Catholicism at court. In this position he succeeded Richard Dering; he held this post until the Queen fled to Holland in 1642. Little is known about Mico's activities since then, but it is likely that he lived in London; he received a life annuity from the Petre family.

Mico's oeuvre comprises only music for viol consort: 30 fantasias in two to five parts, seven pavans in four and five parts, an In Nomine and a piece called Latral. This entire output seems to date from the time Mico was in the service of the Petre family; apparently he has not written any music since he left his post at Thorndon Hall. It is observed in the liner-notes to the disc of Concerto di Viole as well as in the article on Mico in New Grove that he seems to have had no interest in lighter dance forms. However, even though many pieces on this disc are subdued in nature, and quite a number may be experienced as rather sombre, there is certainly some variety between the pieces or even within single pieces. An example of the latter is the Fantasia 6 4. Even the pavan, which is usually not exactly uplifting in character, can have some light touches, as is the case here with the Pavan 3 5, which closes this disc. There are only a few passages of homophony, such as in the Pavan 2 5, and in some pieces Mico makes use of chromaticism. The most striking example is a piece which takes a special place in his oeuvre, as its name Latral suggests. The title refers to a madrigal by Claudio Monteverdi, Vattene pur, crudel, con quella pace, whose second part opens with the words "La tra'l sangu'e le morti". In his piece, Mico transcribes this second part of the madrigal, which includes a passage with descending chromaticism, and adds a piece of his own as a kind of 'answer' with an episode of ascending chromaticism. English composers certainly were aware of what was going on in England, but the influence of Italian music was largely confined to music in the stile antico. The madrigal which is the subject of this piece by Mico is included in Monteverdi's third madrigal book, printed in 1592, well before he embraced the seconda pratica.

This disc seems the first entirely devoted to the oeuvre of Mico. It includes the largest part of his output: 22 of the 39 pieces he has left. It would be nice if at some time the remainder of his output would be recorded as well, as the music performed here is of excellent quality. Mico was held in high esteem. Christopher Simpson, in his Prnciples of Practical Musick (1665), called him in the same breath as the likes of Alfonso Ferrabosco and Giovanni Coperario. In 1728 Roger North also reckoned him among the leading composers of consort music. From that perspective, this disc is of great importance, for historical and musical reasons. Concerto di Viole does him ample justice by these fine and stylish performances which are the result of a thorough study of and experience with Mico's consort music. In the work-list in New Grove, only in some pieces the organ is specifically mentioned. Here it is also used in some other pieces. That may well be in line with performance practice at the time. Whether that also goes for the participation of an archlute is something I don't know. In the end, it hardly matters. This is a very nice disc which no lover of consort music should miss.

John Jenkins is one of the most remarkable English composers of the 17th century. He reached the exceptional age of 86 which means that he experienced the many trials and tribulations in politics and society including the Commonwealth and the Restoration. He also saw the aesthetics change from the late Elizabethan era to the period we call 'Baroque'. And these changes left their mark in his oeuvre.

He left over 800 compositions, but that is practically all we know about him. No portrait, very little biographical detail - he didn't even make efforts to get his music printed. Apart from pieces which were included in contemporary collections his music was not printed before the 20th century. From what was written about him one gets the impression he was a very modest character. His pupil Roger North wrote: "Mr Jenkins was a very gentile and well bred gentleman, and was allways not onely welcome, but greatly valued by the familys wherever he had taught and convers't. He was constantly complaisant in every thing desired of him ..." When after the Restoration he became part of the Private Musick at court he was payed until his death, even though he wasn't able to play anymore due to his age - another sign of the high respect he enjoyed.

Earlier in his career he never held a position at the court. He rather moved among aristocratic circles, and we may therefore assume that almost all his music was written for amateurs. However, that doesn't mean that his compositions are rather simple. We should not underestimate the skills of non-professional players. After all, music was an important part of the education of members of the higher echelons of society, and playing the viol was highly popular. The large amount of music for viol consort written before the Restoration attests to that.

Jenkins' oeuvre shows a wide variety of forms. In the category of instrumental music we find fantasias, fantasia-suites and fantasia-air sets, In nomines, airs and divisions as well as music for one to three lyra viols. About ten years ago, The Spirit of Gambo recorded the fantasias in four parts. The present disc includes the complete fantasias in five parts. It is not known for sure when they were written, but it is assumed that they date from the 1620s, which means that they are from about the same time as Mico composed his fantasias.

They vary in the number of themes: some have only one, others include sections contrasting in tempo and metre. Whereas Mico seems to have focused on the darker side of life, Jenkins's fantasias are varied in mood. Here and there one meets quirky rhythms, and now and then we hear a passage with harmonic tension. Jenkins was certainly top of the bill in his time in the field of consort music, and these fantasias are fine specimens of his art.

I recommended the recording of the four-part fantasias, and I do the same with this new disc. Maybe the contrasts within some pieces could have been more emphasized. Overall, I am happy with these performances, in which the instruments blend beautifully and there is some effective dynamic shading. This disc is a fine testimony of Jenkins's art, and a worthwhile addition to the catalogue.

Johan van Veen ( 2021)

Relevant links:

Concerto di Viole
The Spirit of Gambo

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