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William BYRD & John JENKINS: Consort music

[I] William BYRD (c1540 - 1623): "Complete Consort Music"

rec: Sept 6 - 8, 2010, Oxford, Merton College Chapel
Linn Records - CKD 372 (© 2009) (79'59")
Liner-notes: E
Cover & tracklist

Browning a 5 (The leaves be green); Christe qui lux es a 4 (I); Christe qui lux es a 4 (II); Christe qui lux es a 4 (III); Christe redemptor omnium a 4; Fantasia a 3 (I); Fantasia a 3 (II); Fantasia a 3 (III); Fantasia a 4 (I); Fantasia a 4 (III); Fantasia a 5 (Two parts in one in the 4th above); Fantasia a 6 (I) (A song of two basses); Fantasia a 6 (II); Fantasia a 6 (III) (to the vyolls); In nomine a 4 (I); In nomine a 4 (II); In nomine a 5 (II) (on the sharp); In nomine a 5 (III); In nomine a 5 (IV); In nomine a 5 (V); Miserere a 4; Pavan and Galliard a 5; Pavan and Galliard a 6; Prelude and Goodnight Ground a 5; Sermone Blando a 3; Sermone Blando a 4 (II); Te lucis a 4

Laurence Dreyfus, treble viol; Wendy Gillespie, treble & tenor viol; Emilia Benjamin, Jonathan Manson, tenor viol; Mikko Perkola, tenor & bass viol; Markku Luolajan-Mikkola, bass viol

[II] John JENKINS (1592 - 1678): "Consort Music of Four Parts"
The Spirit of Gambo

rec: Feb 16 - 18, 2009, Haarlem, Doopsgezinde Kerk
Musica Ficta - MF8011 (© 2011) (61'44")
Liner-notes: E/F/N
Cover & tracklist

Fantasy II in c minor; Fantasy III in c minor; Fantasy V in F; Fantasy VI in F; Fantasy VII in c minor; Fantasy VIII in c minor; Fantasy IX in F; Fantasy XI in a minor; Fantasy XII in D; Fantasy XIII in D; Fantasy XIV in D; Fantasy XV in C/c minor; Fantasy XVI in d minor; Pavan in e minor

Freek Borstlap, treble viol; Gesina Liedmeier, Thomas Baeté, tenor viol; Ivanka Neeleman, bass viol

Music for viol consort is anything but an English specialty, but it flourished in England like nowhere else. It came to its peak in the first half of the 17th century, when it was played among the affluent circles of society. At the time William Byrd wrote his consort music it was largely played at the court and among some aristocratic circles as well as in cathedrals and theatres. This disc presents Byrd's complete consort music as far as it is preserved in complete form. Pieces of doubtful authenticity and incomplete compositions have been omitted.

In his liner-notes Laurence Dreyfus suggests a chronology of the pieces Phantasm has recorded. If he is right we can see a move from the most concrete pieces - those which are based on popular songs or liturgical chants - to the most abstract form, the fantasia. This is in line with the musical development in the 16th century at the continent. For most of the century instrumental music consisted of transcriptions of vocal music and dance music. It was only in the last decades that independent instrumental music of a different kind was written. Such music gave the opportunities to explore the specific qualities of the various instruments.

It is an indication of the development of consort music in England that only two of Byrd's compositions in this genre have been printed in his lifetime, and that in a collection of 1611. These pieces were both fantasias. At that time the transcriptions of vocal music had become largely obsolete, and the free forms were dominating. Byrd's fantasias are his most lively pieces for viol consort. Most other pieces are rather introverted and sincere, which seems to reflect his character. The liner-notes quote the author Henry Peacham who wrote that Byrd was "naturally disposed to Gravitie and Pietie". The Fantasia a 4 (III) is one of this discs more extraverted pieces, and the programme ends with another lively piece, the Goodnight Ground a 5, preceded by a prelude.

The function of the pieces based on liturgical chants is not quite clear. Laurence Dreyfus states that it is unlikely they were used in liturgy, as the numbers of Byrd's polyphonic verses and the strophes of the hymns don't match. Like other composers Byrd composed several In nomines, after a phrase from John Taverner's Missa Gloria tibi Trinitas. Notable is the Fantasia a 6 (I), with the addition A song of two basses. The scoring with two bass viols lends it considerable darkness and power.

Phantasm is one of today's best viol consorts. Its style of playing is far away from that which was common about 20 or so years ago. Its tone is stronger and it is not afraid of dynamic shading. In the six-part pieces its performance is sometimes even orchestral, without ever losing its transparency. The differences between the various pieces - in particular those based on liturgical subjects and the free fantasias - come off perfectly. With this disc Byrd's consort music receives an ideal interpretation.

John Jenkins belongs to the next generation of English composers of music for viol consort. He was also one of the most prominent and remarkable of that generation, generally held in high esteem, not only because of the quality of his music but also because of his character, described as "gentile" and "complaisant". During his long life he experienced the political turmoils of the Commonwealth and the Restoration, but also the shift from the polyphonic fantasia to the baroque trio sonata. In a way one could consider him the link between Byrd and Purcell. In many of his consort suites he includes a part for the organ or for basso continuo. In some of his compositions the upper part is for the violin rather than the treble viol.

New Grove lists 17 fantasias in four parts, with the scoring treble viol, alto or tenor viol, tenor viol, bass viol and organ. But the actual score doesn't mention the participation of an organ, and therefore it is not included in this recording. These fantasias are harmonically daring. A most striking example is the Fantasy XVI which closes this disc, in particular the middle section. And let us not forget the brilliant Pavan in e minor.

This seems to be the first recording of Jenkins' four-part fantasias. In a way it is a shame that not all 17 fantasias were recorded. But then the pavan probably would have been omitted, and that would have been a great pity. These fantasias are masterpieces in every respect, and fortunately they receive outstanding performances by The Spirit of Gambo. The playing is passionate, with some fine dynamic contrasts. The perfect intonation allows the harmonic peculiarities to come off approprately.

Nobody interested in consort music should miss these two great discs.

Johan van Veen (© 2011)

Relevant links:

The Spirit of Gambo

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