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John JENKINS (1592 - 1678): "Fantasy Suites"

Hamburger Ratsmusik
Dir: Simone Eckert

rec: May 14 - 16, 2008, Berlin, Siemensvilla
Phoenix Edition - 141 (© 2009) (63'03")

Aria in A; Divisions in A; Pieces in A; Sonata in d minor/D major; Suite in g minor; Suite in a minor; Suite No 11 in c minor; Suite No 17 in e minor

Christoph Heidemann, violin; Simone Eckert, viola da gamba; Ulrich Wedemeier, theorbo; Michael FŁrst, organ

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 on 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.

This disc gives a nice overview of the change in style which can be traced in his oeuvre. The programme contains four so-called Fantasy-suites, a modern term for a fantasy which is followed by two shorter movements. The Suite No 11 and Suite No 17 are from a collection of 17, in which the opening fantasy is followed by an almain and an ayr. These pieces are rooted in the consort music of the renaissance era. It is nevertheless remarkable that the treble part is written for the violin rather than the treble viol. At the time these suites were probably written the violin was a new and still relatively unknown instrument in England. Jenkins must have known the violin from his childhood as in this parents' household there were "Seven Vialls and Violyns". John Jenkins was the first composer in England to write for the violin.

The Suite in g minor and the Suite in a minor are stylistically different as they make use of the diminution technique which had become very popular on the continent and was used in England in particular by Christopher Simpson. The parts for the violin and the viola da gamba have become considerably more virtuosic and are treated in a more individualistic way. The whole range of the viola da gamba is explored up to its limit. In addition, whereas the organ part in the early suites was written out, here the bass consists of a genuine basso continuo part.

Also late compositions are the Aria in A and the Sonata in d minor/D major. The former is a beautiful melodious piece showing Jenkins' "lyrical inventiveness" as Andrew Ashbee describes one of the composer's features in his article in New Grove.
This disc also contains two pieces for the 'lyra viol'. One of them is the Divisions in A with basso continuo, which according to Simone Eckert are putting even Christopher Simpson in the shade. I don't know about that but it is certainly right to bracket them together.
The four Pieces in A are written for viola da gamba solo, and come from a manuscript called "ms GoŽss" which is preserved in Ebenthal in Austria. It is very likely this manuscript was put together by Dietrich Steffkin, a close friend of Jenkins, who had worked in England but lived in the Netherlands during the Commonwealth period and not only collected music but also sent Jenkins the newest music from the continent. The manuscript contains a number of pieces by both Jenkins and Steffkin.

As one may gather from this description of the programme this disc is highly interesting and contains a good variety of styles and compositional genres. And thanks to the interpretation by the Hamburger Ratsmusik it is also a very entertaining and captivating disc. The four players are all excellent musicians who impress with their impeccable technique. They have also captured the spirit and the style of Jenkins' music very well. I know some older recordings of English 17th-century music by German musicians which were too rigid and too stiff, but nothing of that is noticeabe here. The interpreters play with great vitality and rhythmic precision. The sound of the violin and the viola da gamba is brilliant and the balance within the ensemble is also very good.

Simone Eckert has written lucid programme notes in German. Unfortunately the English translation is not always correct and sometimes misses the mark.

This is an outstanding disc which makes Jenkins shine and sheds light on the unique talent of this English master of the 17th century. And as he left more than 800 compositions there is definitely still a lot of work to do.

Johan van Veen (© 2010)

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