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CD reviews

English music for viols

[I] "John Jenkins and 'his most esteemed friend' William Lawes"
rec: July 29 - 31, 2015, Parme, Chiesa di San Rocco (sacrestia grande)
Et'cetera - KTC 1919 ( 2016) (73'03")
Liner-notes: E/F/I
Cover & track-list

John COPRARIO (c1575-1626): Fantasia 3; Fantasia 4; John JENKINS (1592-1678): Fantasia-suite in g minor; Fantasia-suite in a minor; Nuwark Seidge; William LAWES (1602-1645): Fantasia-suite in C; Fantasia-suite in c minor

Claudia Combs, Massimo Percivaldi, violin; Roberto Gini, Angilella, division viol; Sara Dieci, organ

[II] "The Excellency of Hand - English Viola da Gamba Duos"
Robert Smith, Paolo Pandolfo, viola da gamba
rec: Oct 13 - 15, 2015, Bunnik, Oude Dorpskerk
Resonus - RES10186 ( 2017) (73'52")
Liner-notes: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Simon IVES (1600-1662): Ayre for 2 Bass Viols No. 1; Ayre for 2 Bass Viols No. 2; John JENKINS (1592-1678): Air with Divisions in C (VdGS 11); Air with Divisions in C (VdGS 12); Ayre for Bass Viols and Basso continuo in d minor (VdGS 32); Divisions on a Ground in C (VdGS 13); Divisions on a Ground in D (VdGS 21); Divisions on a Ground in g minor (VdGS 23); Divisions on a Ground in A (VdGS 18); Divisions on a Ground in a minor (VdGS 19); Christopher SIMPSON (c1605-1669): Division in F (VdGS 26); Division in F (VdGS 27); Division in a minor (VdGS 25); Divisions in G (VdGS 28); Prelude No. 2 in d minor; Prelude No. 3 in F; Prelude No. 4 in F; Prelude No. 5 in a minor; Prelude No. 7 in g minor; Prelude No. 11 in B flat; Robert SMITH (*1980): Prelude in a minor

[III] Christopher SIMPSON (c1605-1669): The Four Seasons
Sirius Viols
rec: Dec 4 - 7, 2015, Mandelsloh, St. Osdag
deutsche harmonia mundi - 88875190982 ( 2016) (73'51")
Liner-notes: E/D
Cover, track-list & booklet

John Jenkins played a major role at the English music scene in the 17th century. Thanks to his long life he experienced three different periods in English political history which had some effects on the state of music. In his formative years some of the figureheads of the Elizabethan Golden Age were still alive and active as composers, such as John Dowland and William Byrd. Counterpoint was the dominant factor, both in vocal and in instrumental music; the developments on the continent didn't appeal to English composers. In 1649 the monarchy came to an end when Charles I was executed. Under the Commonwealth with which the name of Oliver Cromwell is connected, church music and public performances of secular music were largely forbidden and this resulted in a flowering of chamber music, played at the homes of the aristocracy and the upper echelons of society. Stylistically little changed; although there was some influx of musicians from France (such as the violinist Stephen Nau), there was much caution to embrace foreign influences. One of the most important composers of the mid-17th century, John Locke, stated that "I never yet saw any foreign composition worthy an English man's transcribing." The new style from Italy and the instrumental virtuosity going along with that, manifested itself in the 1650s with violinists as Thomas Baltzar from Germany and Nicola Matteis from Italy. The musical climate fundamentally changed after the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. The new king, Charles II, who had returned from his exile in France, was under the impression of what he had heard at and around the court over there. He actively promoted a different style of composing, expressing his distaste for the fancy, one of the most characteristic forms of instrumental music in England.

Jenkins seems to have been generally liked. 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 ...". On two of the discs reviewed here he is put alongside two other prominent composers with whom he seems to have had a close relationship. On the first disc his companion is William Lawes, whom he called his "most esteemed friend", as the title of the Et'cetera disc indicates.

They had two things in common. Both composed a considerable number of fantasia-suites and both were staunch monarchists and supporters of Charles I. Lawes was two years younger than Charles; they met when they were both pupils of John Coprario, who is considered the 'inventor' of the fantasia-suite. This genre - the term is a modern invention and was not used in the 17th century - flourished especially at the court under Charles. The fantasia-suite was scored for one or two violins and viola da gamba 'to the organ'; the latter means that the organ part is written-out. It opened with a fantasia which was followed by two other pieces, originally almain and galliard. However, in the fantasia-suites by Jenkins and Lawes recorded here, the latter usually have different titles, such as pavan, corant and air. Despite the similarity in form there are some meaningful differences between the fantasia-suites of both composers. One of the features of William Lawes's oeuvre is his very individual treatment of harmony. That comes here especially to the fore in the opening fantasia from the Fantasia-suite in c minor. Jenkins's harmonic language is more regular and balanced. Another difference is that Lawes specifically requires violins for the upper parts, whereas Jenkins's fantasia-suites indicate a treble instrument, meaning either a violin or a treble viol. In this recording the performers have decided to confine themselves to the violin.

I already wrote that Jenkins and Lawes were both supporters of the monarchy. Lawes died at the battle of Chester in 1642 and Jenkins reacted by composing an Elegy on the death of William Lawes. The present disc includes another piece from his pen which shows his position in the battle between Charles and the Parliamentarians. In 1646 the third siege of Newark ended in a victory for Charles and at this occasion Jenkins composed his Nuwark Seidge. It is a piece of programme music which comprises three movements: pavan (although the title of this dance is not mentioned), galliard and air. The first movement depicts the battle and toward the end it turns to a lament for those who were killed in the battle. As a tribute to the 'inventor' of the fantasia-suite the performers have included two fantasias for viols and organ by John Coprario.

I had never heard the ensemble Theorema before, and the booklet omits any information about it. In an (Italian) Wikipedia article I saw that it was founded in 2015 by Roberto Gini who in recent years has presented himself with some fine recordings of English music for viols. This disc, which is probably the ensemble's first, is also a winner in every respect. The concept is interesting and the way it has been worked out is convincing. The playing of all participants is outstanding. The violinists rightly avoid making their parts sounding too much Italian. This is still English music, and although Jenkins's fantasia-suites may date from after the Restoration, as Gini writes in the booklet, they are still rooted in the stile antico from earlier in the century.

One of the discs by Roberto Gini to which I referred, is devoted to music for two bass viols by Jenkins, which he recorded with Wieland Kuijken and Mario Martinoli. The second disc reviewed here includes a comparable repertoire, with one significant difference: here we hear pieces for two viole da gamba alone, whereas in the previous disc the Ayres and Divisions are scored for two viols with an obbligato part for organ. Therefore this disc is not more of the same.

In both discs the central issue is a genre which was extremely popular in England in the 17th century, generally known as divisions on a ground. They show a strong similarity with the diminutions (or passaggi) by Italian composers from the decades around 1600. There is one significant difference: Italian composers took one line from a vocal work - or sometimes all the parts - whereas English composers based their compositions on a bass pattern, known in Italian as basso ostinato. Sometimes they used one pattern from start to finish, elsewhere two patterns alternate. The main exponent of this genre was Christopher Simpson, who in 1569 published a manual, The Division Violist, which was reprinted in a revised edition in 1665 under the title The Division Viol. The most remarkable thing is probably that divisions were - ideally speaking - improvised, and Simpson's book is intended to instruct players how to play ex tempore. But Simpson was realistic enough to understand that not everyone had the skills to create his own divisions. He who doesn't have the gift of invention "may give himself satisfaction in playing divisions himself or others have made for that purpose."

That is basically the idea behind this disc: no improvisations by the players ("an exciting project, but one to be embarked upon another day"), but "a survey of the extant divisions for two bass viols by Jenkins and Simpson." Again it makes much sense to put Jenkins beside Simpson. In his treatise the latter explicitly refers to Jenkins, writing that "none has done so much in that kind [writing for two or three viols], as the ever famous and most excellent composer, in all sorts of modern musick, Mr. John Jenkins." And the latter wrote a dedicatory poem in the introduction to the treatise which ends with the line: "Simpsons great work will teach the world to play."

Sets of divisions by English composers have been recorded before, but then mostly for one viol; therefore the disc with divisions for two viols and organ which I mentioned above was of great importance. The same can be said of the present disc; it seems to be the very first that includes this kind of pieces for two viols. Divisions are usually virtuosic: no wonder that Simpson admitted that the playing of such pieces requires 'excellency of hand and invention'. The fact that Jenkins composed such pieces indicates that he must have had someone in his surroundings who had such excellency. The programme also includes some of Simpson's preludes for solo viol which are used as introductions to divisions in the same key. They are much easier than the divisions, and the same goes for the two Ayres for two bass viols by Simon Ives, taken from a set of ten which have been preserved in manuscript. Ives is a relatively little-known composer of mainly instrumental music. About 150 pieces for viols have been preserved, among them around 100 for lyra viol. As he is not well represented on disc, there is still much work to do.

Undoubtedly the present disc is of major importance, first and foremost because of the repertoire which is seldom performed and is of superior quality. That quality is impressively demonstrated here, thanks to the 'excellency of hand' of Robert Smith and Paolo Pandolfo. Their interplay is a real dialogue of equal partners. Their brilliant and engaging style of playing is a joy to listen to. This disc goes straight to my list of discs of the year.

The third disc is entirely devoted to Simpson, and here we find a mixture of the features of the two previous discs. On the one hand, in The Four Seasons Simpson makes use of the technique of divisions. On the other hand, this cycle consists of four fantasia-suites. Each season opens with a fancy, which is followed by an ayre and a galliard. It is one of two cycles from Simpson's pen; the other one is called The Months. Both are scored for treble viol, two bass viols and basso continuo. The latter indicates that the new style manifests itself in Simpson's oeuvre.

The Months and The Four Seasons seem to be the only cycles ever written for viols, only preceded by Dowland's Lachrymae. Simpson certainly was the first to devote a cycle to these subjects, long before the likes of Vivaldi, Werner and Haydn. However, whereas the latter in their compositions aimed at illustrating the various seasons, months or parts of the day, it is an open question whether Simpson had the same intention. Interestingly, in his treatise Simpson included an explanation and an alchemist's diagram of 'The Analogy of Musical Concords to the Aspects of the Planets' and connects ornaments to various emotions. This suggests that the keys of the various seasons were chosen with the intention of expressing their respective characters. Even so, this has to remain speculation. The members of Sirius Viols felt free to project their own ideas onto these pieces.

They have opted for a rather theatrical approach, for instance through strong dynamic differences and marked dynamic accents. This is emphasized by the use of plucked instruments in the basso continuo, in particular the cittern and the bandora. I have some doubts as to whether this is in line with the intentions of the composer. But as long as we have no clue as to what exactly he had in mind, we will not be able to prove whether the performers are right or wrong.

It certainly guarantees a compelling performance; there is no dull moment here. That is also due to the excellency of the players. Sirius Viols have never been just a voice in the crowd. That is a good thing; their recordings are real alternatives to what is on the market. Not that there is anything to choose from in this case; I haven't been able to find another recording of the complete cycle. Only Sophie Watillon has recorded 'The Winter' and 'The Spring' as part of a programme of various pieces by Simpson (Alpha, 2005); it was announced as volume 1, but a second volume has never appeared, undoubtedly because of Ms Watillon's passing away in 2005. That makes this release all the more important.

Johan van Veen ( 2017)

Relevant links:

Paolo Pandolfo
Robert Smith
Sirius Viols

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