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"Consort Music at the time of Shakespeare"

Spes Nostra
Dir: Jérôme Hantaï

rec: June 1 - 4, 2015, Bessines (F), Eglise romane
Musicales Actes Sud - ASM 28 (© 2016) (69'17")
Liner-notes: E/F
Cover & track-list

anon: In nomine a 6; Elway BEVIN (c1554-1638): Browning; In nomine a 5; William BYRD (1543-1623): Christe qui lux es a 4 (3 versets); Fantasia a 3; Fantasia a 4; Fantasia a 6; In nomine a 4; Pavan and galliard a 6; Sermone blando a 3 (2 versets); Osbert PARSLEY (1511-1585): In nomine a 4; In nomine a 5; Spes nostra; Robert PARSONS (c1535-1571/72): Delacourt; PICFORTH (?-?): In nomine a 5; Thomas PRESTON (fl c1540-1560): O lux beata Trinitas; Henry STONING(S) (fl c1600): Miserere; Nicholas STROGERS (fl 1560-1575): In nomine a 5; Christopher TYE (c1505-1573): In nomine a 5 Blamles; In nomine a 5 Crye; O lux beata Trinitas

Kaori Uemura, Jérôme Hantaï, Catherine Arnoux, Emmanuel Balssa, Julien Léonard, Alix Verzier, viola da gamba

Viol consorts have a rich and varied repertoire to choose from. No wonder that discs with this kind of music are released on a regular basis. The English ensembles Phantasm and Fretwork are among the best known of this kind. Spes Nostra, directed by Jérôme Hantaï, seems a relatively new ensemble which I heard for the first time at the Early Music Festival in Utrecht in 2015. It made a good impression with a programme which is partly identical with what is included on the present disc.

The largest part is taken from a manuscript which was copied between 1575 and 1580 and is preserved in the British Library, called A booke of In Nomines & other solfainge songes ... for voyces or instrumentes. The title refers to a specific and very popular genre at the time, the In nomine. It is based upon the Sarum antiphon Gloria tibi Trinitas as it was used by John Taverner as cantus firmus in his mass of the same name. Numerous pieces of this kind were composed in the 16th and 17th centuries. "The In Nomine was the most conspicuous single form in the early development of English consort music, over 150 examples surviving by some 58 composers from Taverner to Purcell", according to New Grove. Specimens of this genre constitute the core of the programme. Two are from the pen of Christopher Tye who himself was responsible for no fewer than 24 settings. The In nomines are scattered across the programme, but even if they were played in succession the listener would immediate notice strong differences between them. Listen, for instance, to In nomine a 5 by Elway Bevin and Christopher Tye's In nomine a 5 'Crye' which follows it. The former is quietly moving forward and rather introverted, whereas the latter is energetic and opens with a motif of repeated notes which return throughout the whole piece.

This disc is a happy mixture of more or less familiar pieces and little-known items. The pieces by Byrd can be counted among the former: his music is often played and the Pavan and galliard a 6 is one of his most beautiful creations in the genre of consort music. Osbert Parsley, on the other hand, is a largely unknown quantity. He was active as a singer and spent most of his life in Norwich. His compositional output consists of sacred music on Latin and on English texts and some consort music. The latter category includes five In nomines. His consort music is notable for its relatively low pitch. The programme includes a rather curious piece, called Spes nostra, from which the ensemble's name is derived. It is written over a cantus firmus in quintuple metre which is repeated five times.

Another little-known master is Elway Bevin who was an organist and was also known as a theorist. It seems likely that he was a recusant. His oeuvre is small; the most important part comprises sacred music, including three services. Browning is an arrangement of a popular 16th-century song which opened with the words "Browning, my dear". Bevin's setting is in three parts and is written in a very lively rhythm.

Henry Stoning or Stoning(e)s also wrote a piece with this title; it is one of only three pieces from his pen which have come down to us. The others are an In nomine and the Miserere played here. The cantus firmus moves from one part to the other. Next to nothing is known about Stoning; a 17th-century author stated that he was a "noted musician" but there are no other sources which give any information about him.

With the two remaining composers who can be considered little-known we return to the In nomine. Nicholas Strogers seems to have been active as an organist. His oeuvre consists of sacred music, secular consort songs, consort music and a couple of keyboard pieces. Seven In nomines from his pen are known, five of them in five parts of which two are incomplete. Also in five parts is the In nomine by a certain Picforth; his Christian name and the dates of birth and death are unknown. This piece is his only extant composition.

I already mentioned that I have heard this ensemble in a live performance. My positive impressions are confirmed by this disc. Spes nostra is a specimen of the modern style of consort playing: zestful, imaginative and not afraid of dynamic contrasts. The ensemble is impeccable and I like the way the various voices can be noticed, thanks to the style of playing but also the recording. The transparency of the musical web is remarkable. The differences between the various pieces is successfully conveyed: the slow moving pieces are very beautiful, the more extroverted items sometimes outright exciting.

Spes nostra is a real acquisition to the ranks of viol consorts. I hope to hear more from them.

Johan van Veen (© 2017)

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