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Christopher SIMPSON (c1605 - 1669): "Ayres & Graces"

Chelys Consort of Viols; James Akers, theorbo, guitar; Dan Tidhar, harpsichord, organ

rec: July 2013, Cambridge, Girton College Chapel
BIS - BIS-2153 (© 2015) (59'38")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover & track-list

Ayres Nos. 1-3 in C; Ayres Nos. 4-7 in B flat; Ayres Nos. 8-13 in D; Ayres Nos. 14-16 in d minor; Ayres Nos. 17-20 in g minor; Divisions for treble and bass viol in a minor; Divisions for treble and bass viol in a minor; Divisions for two bass viols in C; Divisions for two bass viols in F

Emily Ashton, Ibrahim Aziz, Jennifer Bullock, Alison Kinder, viola da gamba

The viola da gamba played a major role across Europe during the renaissance. It was still very much in vogue in the 17th century in some countries. In Italy it gradually fell out of grace in favour of the cello but it held its status in France and in England. Whereas in France it was mainly used for solo pieces, in England it was first and foremost part of an ensemble of instruments, the consort of viols. Music for such an ensemble was frequently written until the end of the century: Henry Purcell composed the last pieces for such an ensemble.

However, the viol was assigned a solo role in two genres: first music for lyra viol - or, more precisely, for viol played the lyra way - and secondly divisions. Although the English music scene of the first half of the 17th century was still very much dominated by the stile antico which was characterised by the dominant position of counterpoint, there were some traces of the new style as it had emerged in Italy around 1600. That comes especially to the fore in the addition of a part for basso continuo in chamber music. John Jenkins was one of the composers who wrote in both styles: music for a consort of viols in which all the voices are treated on equal terms, and pieces for melody instruments, including violin(s), and basso continuo.

Christopher Simpson was one of the main contributors to the genre of the divisions. He was born in a family of Roman Catholics who belonged to the recusants. During the Civil Wars he served on the Royalist side. In the late 1640s he went to live at the house of Sir Robert Bolles in Lincolnshire who became his patron. Simpson became the teacher of Sir Robert's son John, who under his guidance developed into a brilliant viol player who in 1661 performed as such in Rome. It was also John Bolles who was the main reason for Simpson to write his treatise The Division-Violist, or An Introduction to the Playing upon a Ground, which was published in 1659. Such was its reputation that it was reprinted in 1665 under the title The Division-viol, or The Art of Playing Extempore upon a Ground.

New Grove defines divisions as follows: "A term used in England during the 17th century for a technique of improvised variation in which the notes of a cantus firmus, or Ground, are divided into shorter ones (...)". They are basically the same as what were called passaggi in Italy and diferencias in Spain. In Musick's Monument (1676) Thomas Mace writes: "The Ground, is a set Number of Slow Notes, very Grave, and Stately; which (after It is express’d Once, or Twice, very Plainly) then He that hath Good Brains, and a Good Hand, undertakes to Play several Divisions upon It, Time after Time, till he has shew’d his Bravery, both of Invention, and Hand."

The present disc includes four sets of divisions for two viols, either treble and bass or two bass viols. This kind of pieces come with a basso continuo part, and Simpson suggests a harpsichord or an organ. This part of Simpson's output represents the 'baroque' side of his oeuvre. But the raison d'être of this disc is the performance of the 20 Ayres for two trebles and two basses. They have never been recorded before and this performance is based on a transcription by Alex Parker from 2009 and published by the Viola da Gamba Society of Great Britain the following year. In his liner-notes Parker rightly states that the interest in Simpson's divisions has gone at the cost of the remainder of his oeuvre. The work-list in New Grove mentions various groups of pieces which are not available on disc.

These pieces have been preserved in four different manuscripts, but none of them are autographs. The most complete source is the set of partbooks which is preserved in the Bodleian Library. These 20 pieces are arranged into groups according to key, and these are in fact dance suites, although the word suite is not used, and every group includes an ayre. Parker discusses an interesting aspect of manuscript sources - and the same goes for printed editions, for that matter -: the fact that they often include what seem to be errors. Modern editors are inclined to correct them, but in this case they have been kept "in order to preserve the manuscripts as historical documents". That seems a wise decision: an editor should not get in the way of performers; they should take their own decisions. But Parker adds another reason: "It is furthermore possible that our reading of Simpson's treatises on composition are too literal and what we perceive to be 'mistakes' or 'errors' are actually something that masy provide us with an insight into Simpson's largely unknown character". I fully agree. I have always been sceptical about musicologists or editors who claim to know exactly what the composer acually meant and feel free to 'correct' so-called obvious mistakes.

The groups are different in size as one can see in the track-list: they vary from three to six. Every group opens with a pavin and includes an ayre. Other dances are corant (just one: No. 10), galliard and sarabande. Every piece is divided into two or three 'strains' or groups of phrases, each of which is repeated. In this recording the repeats of the every strain is embellished. In his notes on the interpretation Ibrahim Aziz explains the various embellishments the performers have added. The ornaments are taken from Simpson's The Division Viol, "almost all of which, somewhat surprisingly, one would associate with later French baroque music [rather] than mid-seventeenth-century English music". The ensemble uses viols which are copies of English instruments from the first half of the 17th century, all strung with plain gut from top to bottom. Although these ayres belong to the stile antico several sources include continuo parts. These are realized here by a keyboard and a plucked instrument, theorbo or guitar.

Needless to say that this is a release of major importance. Simpson was one of the main exponents of viol playing and composing of his time and one of the most significant representatives of the stile nuovo. Like other composers he had a different side: music for viol consort, in this case of a special kind. I cannot praise enough the performances which the Chelys Consort of Viols delivers here. This is ensemble playing of the highest calibre. Excellent blending of the viols, appropriate dynamic shading, convincing tempi and a good sense for the rhythm of these pieces: they all contribute to what may be considered an ideal interpretation of these ayres.

Johan van Veen (© 2015)

Relevant links:

Chelys Consort of Viols

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