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Orlando GIBBONS & John JENKINS: Consort music

[I] Orlando GIBBONS (1583 - 1625): "Fancies for the Viols"
Dir: François Joubert-Caillet
rec: April 2017, Centeilles, Église Notre-Dame
Ricercar - RIC 384 (© 2017) (74'10")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Fantazia a 2 in F (MB 1); Fantazia a 2 in a minor (MB 4); Fantazia a 3 in d minor (MB 12); Fantazia a 3 in d minor (MB 14); Fantazia a 3 in d minor (MB 18); Fantazia a 3 in d minor (MB 19); Fantazia a 3 in g minor (MB 7); Fantazia a 3 in g minor (MB 8); Fantazia a 4 in C (MB 24); Fantazia a 6 in d minor (MB 33); Fantazia a 6 in g minor (MB 32); Fantazia a 6 in g minor (MB 39); Galliard a 3 in g minor (MB 23); Go from my window a 6 (MB 40); In nomine a 5 in d minor (MB 25); In nomine a 5 in g minor (MB 28); Pavan & Galliard a 6 in G (MB 41/42)

Lucile Boulanger, François Joubert-Caillet, treble viol; Claire Gautrot, Andreas Linos, tenor viol; Robin Pharo, bass viol; Sarah Van Oudenhove, consort bass viol, great bass viol

[II] John JENKINS (1592 - 1678): "Complete Four-Part Consort Music"
rec: Jan 18 - 20, 2016, Sherborne, Gloucestershire, St Mary Magdalen Church
Signum Classsics - SIGCD528 (2 CDs) (© 2018) (83'05")
Liner-notes: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Fantasias a 4 Nos. 1 - 17; Pavan in d minor; Pavan in e minor

Asako Morikawa, treble viol; Reiko Ichise, Emily Ashton / Sam Stadlen, tenor viol; Richard Boothby, bass viol

In England the first half of the 17th century was the Golden Age of music for consort. The large repertoire for an ensemble of instruments, mostly viols or recorders or a mixture of various instruments, bears witness to that. Almost any composer of fame contributed to the genre. William Byrd, John Dowland, William Lawes, Orlando Gibbons and John Jenkins are only a few of them. This review focuses on the output of the latter two.

Gibbons was a composer of high reputation, as is shown by the jobs which were given to him. Having been a chorister at King's College in Cambridge he was mainly active as a keyboard player. From 1603 until his death in 1625 he acted as musician in the Chapel Royal. In 1617 he became one of the 17 musicians in the private chapel of Charles, Prince of Wales, and in 1619 he was appointed virginalist in the royal privy chamber. In 1625 his death after a short illness was widely mourned, in particular in Court circles. Not only as a player but also as a composer he was mostly known for his keyboard music. He was one of only three composers who contributed to Parthenia or The Maydenhead of the first musicke that ever was printed for the Virginalls, printed at the occasion of the wedding of Elizabeth Stuart and Frederick V, Count Palatinate of the Rhine in 1613. The other composers were Byrd and John Bull.

He also composed sacred and secular vocal music. In particular in the sacred works he showed great mastery of polyphony. The same quality manifests itself in his consort music, and in particular the fantasias are impressive demonstrations of his contrapuntal skills. The disc of L'Achéron opens with one of the most astonishing pieces from his pen, the Fantazia a 6 in g minor (MB 39), which is by far the longest of his pieces for consort; it takes a little over ten minutes. It is also remarkable in that it is entirely through-composed, without any change of thematic material or metre. That makes this piece truly monumental. That is different in most other fantasias. Some comprise several sections of contrasting tempi, such as the Fantazia a 4 in C (MB 24), in which the various episodes are given indications as "long and soft" or "fast". In some fantasias the various sections are clearly separated, but there are also fantasias, in which they are linked, in that the final chord of one section is also the first of the next section. The scoring of the fantasias also shows a wide variety, ranging from two instruments to six.

Almost no English composer of that time could ignore the In nomine subject; it was used for both keyboard works and consort music. Gibbons' oeuvre includes four In nomines, one for four and three for five viols. Two of the latter are recorded here; the track-list incorrectly indicates that MB 28 is in six parts. It is the most complex of the two, and opens with syncopated descending tetrachords. Very different are the two galliards, which are dances but certainly not intended for dancing. Whereas popular tunes were particularly popular in keyboard and lute music, Gibbons takes one of the most famous, Go from my window, for a piece of consort music in six parts. The two bass parts are the most demanding.

This disc by the ensemble L'Achéron is the ideal introduction to this part of Gibbons' oeuvre. That is also due to the excellent interpretation: the players shape the lines beautifully, the sound is very transparent, and the contrasts within single pieces come out to the full. Their concentration in the long Fantazia a 6 is admirable. The tempi are rather moderate, in comparison, for instance, with the recording by Phantasm, but they don't seem too slow. The players are served by a fine set of instruments by one instrument maker, Arnaud Giral, after English models. The booklet includes notes about these instruments by Giral.

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 in 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.

Earlier in his career he never held a position at the court. He rather moved among aristocratic circles, and we may therefore assume that almost all his music was written for amateurs. However, that doesn't mean that his compositions are rather simple. We should not underestimate the skills of non-professional players. After all, music was an important part of the education of members of the higher echelons of society, and playing the viol was highly popular. The large amount of music for viol consort written before the Restoration attests to that.

Jenkins' oeuvre shows a wide variety of forms. In the category of instrumental music we find fantasias, fantasia-suites and fantasia-air sets, In nomines, airs and divisions as well as music for one to three lyra viols. The present disc, recorded by the ensemble Fretwork, pretends to include the complete four-part consort music. However, that requires a bit of specification. The work-list in New Grove includes many more pieces in four parts, for instance fantasia-suites for two treble viols, bass viol and organ. It seems that the organ part is not counted among the parts by Fretwork, because in the case of the 17 fantasias recorded here New Grove also mentions an organ part; the liner-notes make no mention of that. The organ part is probably identical with the bass viol part and can be omitted. Even so, it would have been nice, if the liner-notes had been more specific in regard to the scoring and the selection of the music. It also offers little background information, apart from the fact that these four-part fantasias probably date from relatively early in Jenkins' career. If that is indeed the case, the use of a viol for the upper part seems the most logical option, whereas in later music the violin can be used.

These fantasias may be all in four parts, but that does not mean that there is no variety. There are some which are dominated by long note values, which lends them a rather solemn character. Others require a more vivid tempo, and some also consist of several contrasting episodes. This is music in the contrapuntal stile antico, but the relationship between the parts is different. Jenkins generally stays away from the harmonic experiments of, for instance, William Lawes, but makes use of modulations here and there. All in all his music shows a strong sense of balance.

Fretwork is one of the leading ensembles in the field of consort music. It produces a sound which is more incisive than that of L'Achéron, but that may also be due to difference in instruments. I like Fretwork's playing here just as much as L'Achéron in Gibbons. If you are interested in English consort music, you should not hesitate to add both discs to your collection. You will enjoy both of them. Let's hope more music by Jenkins will be recorded, as his oeuvre is so large that considerable parts of it wait to be discovered.

Johan van Veen (© 2018)

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