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Alfonso FERRABOSCO the Younger (c1578 - 1628): Music for viol consort & for lyra viol

[I] "The Art of Fantasy"
Hathor Consort
Dir: Romina Lischka
rec: March 2018, Sint-Truiden, Begijnhofkerk
Rame - RAM 1806 ( 2018) (76'32")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

A Fancie in the third tuningabc [1]; A Pavin in the second tuningabc [1]; Almaina [1]; Almaine in the first tuningab [1]; Almaine No. 10 5 (MB 81/24); Corantoa [1]; Fantasia 4 (MB 62 App/VdGS No. 24); Fantasia No. 2 6 (MB 81/30); Fantasia No. 6 6 (MB 81/34); Fantasia No. 9 4 (MB 62/9); Fantasia No. 11 4 (MB 62/11); Fantasia No. 13 4 (MB 62/13); Fantasia No. 15 4 (MB 62/15); Fantasia on the hexachord 6 (MB 81/25); Galliard in the first tuningab [1]; In Nomine No. 1 5 (MB 81/3); In Nomine No. 3 through all parts 6 (MB 81/28); Pavan No. 2 on seven notes 5 (MB 81/7); Pavina [1]; Preludea [1]; Ut re mi fa sol la - La sol fa mi re ut 5 (MB 81/2a&b)
MB: Musica Brittannica; VdGS: Viola da Gamba Society

Romina Lischka, treble viol, tenor & bass lyra viola; Elizabeth Rumsey, treble viol; Liam Fennelly, alto viol; Uui Smilansky, tenor viol; Thomas Baet, bass viol, lyra violc; Irene Klein, consort bass, lyra violb

[II] "Lessons for Solo Lyra Viol"
Paolo Biordi, 6-string bass viol
rec: July 2018, Gerfalco (GR), Chiesa di San Biagio
Dynamic - CDS7852 ( 2020) (67'54")
Liner-notes: E/IT
Cover, track-list & booklet

[The first tuning] Almaine 1 - Coranto 1; Galliard 2 - Coranto 2; Almaine 3 - Coranto 3
[The second tuning] Galliard 11 - Coranto 11; Almaine 12 - Coranto 12; Pavin 14 - Coranto 14; Almaine 16 - Coranto 16
[The third tuning] Almaine 17 - Coranto 17; Galliard 19 - Coranto 19; Pavin 21 - Coranto 21; Galliard 23 - Coranto 23 Almaine 24 - Coranto 24
The figures refer to the pages in the source

Source: [1] Lessons for 1. 2. and 3. Viols, 1609


From the end of the 17th century, England developed into one of the places to be for performing musicians and composers from across Europe. Especially in the first half of the 18th century, quite a number of musicians from Italy settled in England, and especially in London. However, more than a century earlier, Italians had come to England for work as well. Among them were the members of the Bassano family, who were wind players and performed consort music on recorders at the court of Henry VIII. Under the reign of Elizabeth I, Alfonso Ferrabosco, born in Bologna, came to England in 1562 at the latest. He acted as a courtier at Elizabeth's court until 1578, but during that time moved between England and Italy. This resulted in suspicions of his being active as a spy, either for Elizabeth or for the Catholic Church. In 1577 he was excluded from the privileged access to the queens apartments, as he was suspected of having attended Mass at the residence of the French ambassador. He denied, but his position was such that he had no option but to leave England. He and his wife had to leave his son and his daughter in England. That son was also called Alfonso, who today is known with the adjective 'the Younger', in order to distinguish him from his father.

Whereas his father left a large corpus of vocal works, both sacred and secular, Alfonso the Younger is almost exclusively known for his music for viol consort and for lyra viol. Apparently it is not known from whom he received lessons on the viola da gamba, but he must have developed pretty quickly into a highly-skilled musician: in the early 1590s, when he was probably not yet 20 years old, he already received an annuity as musitian of the violles from Queen Elizabeth. However, he probably did not play a major part in court performances, and only in 1602 he was given an official position. In the next years he acted as the teacher of Prince Henry, for whom he also bought viols. In 1605 The Masque of Blackness was performed, on a text by Ben Jonson, for which Ferrabosco wrote the music. It was the first of many contributions to the genre of the court masque. A number of songs, probably originally written for such masques, was published in 1609 as airs for one and two voices with lute and bass viol.

Ferrabosco's music for viol(s) is often included in anthologies, but the two discs which are the subject of this review may well be the very first entirely devoted to his oeuvre. That is quite surprising, considering its quality, and the fact that his Lessons for 1. 2. and 3 Viols are the first collection of music for the lyra viol ever published. From that angle the importance of the release of these discs can hardly be overrated.

The Hathor Consort's programme is dominated by pieces for viol consort for four to six instruments. Ferrabosco composed 23 fantasias in four parts, probably written for a quartet of four professional viol players under his direction, appointed by Charles I. Surprisingly, they have been preserved in no fewer than 28 sources. This indicates that these pieces, originally intended for performance at the court, became soon very popular among music lovers outside the court, including amateurs. They were written at a time when consort music was at the height of its popularity. Such music was played across the country by members of the aristocracy and higher echelons of the bourgeoisie. At that time, the new style - today called 'baroque' - which emerged in Italy, was pretty far away. Music in England was still dominated by the stile antico, in which counterpoint was the name of the game. Ferrabosco's fantasias are brilliant examples of his skills in this department. In the sacred polyphony of the 15th and 16th centuries, for instance by representatives of the Franco-Flemish school, one often encounters all kinds of experiments and challenges to performers. That is not any different in Ferrabosco's consort music.

Romina Lischka, in her liner-notes, writes: "Ferrabosco makes use of instrumental imitatio, borrowing elements of the Italian canzona and ricercar forms, but his strategic use of rhythmic augmentation and diminution (increasing and decreasing note-values) transforms them into elements which can be built into larger polyphonic structures. This in turn allows the elements to be varied harmonically within in a scheme that proceeds towards distant keys, resulting in a degree of formal inventiveness that appears to have been unprecedented in the England of 1610, and arguably remains unique in the history of the viol consort genre."

The In nomine was one of the main genres of consort music. The programme includes two very different treatments of the subject. The In nomine No. 3 is notable for its symmetry: the cantus firmus moves through all the parts, from treble to bass, being transformed in harmony and rhythm in the process. Another example of symmetry is Ut re mi fa sol la - La sol fa mi re ut. As the title indicates, the series of hexachords in the first section is played in reverse order in the second. Each of them is a semitone higher or lower than the previous one. This piece is also remarkable for its harmony: it includes seven sharps and seven flats, and this results in quite some marked dissonances, especially as Lischka opted to play it in 1/6-comma meantone temperament. The hexachord inspired so many composers of the time, Ferrabosco in his Fantasia in the Hexachord a 6. Each part plays a rising and falling hexachord theme in canon, at different pitches and speeds. In the Pavan on seven notes, the theme is in the treble, and is repeated fourteen times.

Lastly, music for solo viol, played the lyra way, as it was called. This technique was known across Europe, but nowhere it was as popular as in England. Although the term lyra viol referred to the way of playing in the first place, the lyra viol was different from other viols in that it had six gut strings. Music for lyra viol always indicates the tuning in which it has to be played. More than fifty tunings are documented, but Ferrabosco confines himself to three. The pieces in his collection are ordered according to tuning. Most are printed in pairs on the same page, and Paolo Biordi, in his recording of pieces for solo lyra viol, performs them as such. Most pairs consist of alman and coranto, but there are also pairs of galliard and coranto and pavan (pavin) and coranto. In addition, the collection includes three preludes and a single pavan. Romina Lischka included one of the preludes as well as four pieces for two and three lyras respectively.

This is quite fascinating stuff, and lovers of consort music or of the viola da gamba in general should definitely add these two discs to their collection. The Hathor Consort delivers brilliant performances: it manages to produce a transparency, even in the most dense polyphony, which allows to discern the different lines, and which makes listening all the more a most enjoyable experience. The ensemble has a breathing style of playing, observes punctuation marks and creates some nice dynamic shading, which prevents this music to become an almost endless stream of the same. The programme has been constructed in such a way that there is enough variation, for instance through the inclusion of pieces for lyra viol, either solo or for two or three lyra viols. Again, these receive some wonderfully differentiated performances. In short, this is playing of the highest order.

There is less variety in Paolo Biordi's recording of pieces for solo lyra viol. It is probably more suited for those who have a more than average interest in this kind of repertoire. However, the attentive listener is richly rewarded. This is excellent stuff, and Biordi is a most reliable guide, who brings stylish and inventive performances. Whereas Lischka's performing is intimate, Biordi's is more extroverted and his way of playing probably a little more straightforward. However, he also creates some good dynamic shading, and knows how to keep the listener's attention. It is probably wise to listen to one section at a stretch, for instance a group of pieces in the same tuning. Listening a second time may help to really appreciate this intimate music. There can be little doubt that this disc is a major addition to the discography, like that of the Hathor Consort. Both should stimulate other performers to delve into the oeuvre of Alfonso Ferrabosco the Younger, who deserves to be better known.

Johan van Veen ( 2021)

Relevant links:

Hathor Consort

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