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Christopher SIMPSON (c.1605–69)
Ayres and Graces
Details after review
Chelys Consort of Viols (Ibrahim Aziz, Alison Kinder, Emily Ashton, Jennifer Bullock (viols))
Dan Tidhar (chamber organ, harpsichord), James Akers (theorbo, baroque guitar)
rec. 2013, Girton College Chapel, Cambridge. DDD
Reviewed as 24/96 download with pdf booklet from
BIS BIS-2153 SACD [59:38]

There are not too many recordings containing the music of Christopher Simpson: this is the only one in the current catalogue and one of only a few ever to be devoted entirely to his music.  There is one other recording of these four Divisions (Ramée) but this is the first recording of the Ayres, which were edited as recently as 2010.  Two of the Divisions are included on an early Signum release of music by William Lawes1, etc., which earned Kirk McElhearn’s decided approval in 2001 (Charivari Agréable, SIGCD2007 – review).

Earlier recordings of Simpson’s The Monthes (Classico, Alpha and Atma) seem to be deleted, currently out of stock in the UK, or available to download only.  Listening to The Seasons and The Monthes plus two of the Divisions from a consort led by Sophie Watillon (Alpha088) originally prompted me to promise to look at this recording in a future Download News.  In the event I’ve added a few words of approval below.

‘What song the Syrens sang, or what name Achilles assumed when he hid himself among women’, wrote the 17th-century polymath Thomas Browne, ‘though puzzling questions, are not beyond all conjecture.’  It’s the first question that intrigues me more, along with the similar question of what music Spenser imagined was being played by a mixed consort as his puritan hero Sir Guyon entered the Bower of Bliss in the final canto of Book II of The Faerie Queene:

Right hard it was, for wight which did it heare,
To read what manner musicke that mote bee:
For all that pleasing is to living eare,
Was there consorted in one harmonee,
Birdes, voyces, instruments, windes, waters, all agree. [II.xii.70]

It wouldn’t have been the music of Simpson but the music on this new recording, though composed some 50+ years after Spencer, was in the same tradition of the viol consort, a tradition which reached its final flowering with Purcell when it was well on its way out of fashion, another half century later still. 

Whereas Spencer clearly had in mind a mixed or ‘broken’ consort of viols and other instruments, such as those from Thomas Morley’s First Booke of Consort Lessons which David Munrow recorded with his Early Music Consort of London (Virgin budget-price twofer 3500032, with Prætorius and Susato), Simpson restricted his palette to treble and bass viols, though the manuscript includes an unspecified figured bass, here performed on the organ, harpsichord, theorbo and baroque guitar.  I’m hardly qualified academically to pronounce on this decision, though I did some research into the viol consort many years ago for my MA dissertation on Spencer’s Bower of Bliss, but it seems to be reasonable and it sounds well.

The Ayres seem to have been conceived as suites in the same key, so it’s reasonable for them to be rearranged in such groups on this recording.  I’m not sure why this particular order has been chosen but it works pretty well, as long as you don’t expect something like Bach’s Suites.

This is the first time that I have come across Chelys, a group of London-trained young musicians; it is, indeed, their first recording.  Their name, appropriately, comes from the late Latin borrowing from the Greek word for ‘tortoise’, also meaning ‘lyre’ and applied in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to the viol.

I have no benchmark, of course, for their performances of the Ayres but I found them so convincing that I doubt whether these fresh and appealing interpretations could be bettered.  Viol consort music has a not undeserved reputation for sounding melancholy, which was so fashionable in the early seventeenth century that Richard Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) was one of the best sellers of the age.  Tears are never too far away from these works but the predominant mood is of the dance and Chelys never allow the melancholy to drift into depression even in the slower sections.

The recording is bright and fresh to match the performances.  By oversight I forgot to change my DAC from 44.1 to 96 at first – though a brilliant little performer for slightly more than £100, the USB Dragonfly has to be reset – which suggests that the 16/44.1 will sound fine for those unwilling to pay the extra for 24/96.  It sounds even better at the correct setting.  I also listened to the mp3 on a smaller machine and that sounds fine, too.

Not the least of the virtues of this recording are the notes by Alex Parker, who edited the music from a manuscript dated around 1650 for the Viola da Gamba Society of Great Britain (VdGS) in 2010, and by Ibrahim Aziz on the instruments, the continuo and the ornamentation employed.

Don’t expect The Monthes and The Seasons to compare with the picture-painting of Vivaldi or, indeed, Biber and you should also enjoy the Alpha recording of those works which I have mentioned – CD out of stock in the UK but download from in mp3 or lossless sound, unfortunately without booklet.  The notes can be found courtesy of Qobuz where the music can be streamed or purchased by subscribers and sampled and purchased by others.

Those new to the music of the viol consort might well start first with that Munrow recording of the mixed consort music of Morley which I have mentioned – a superb bargain, with no less wonderful performances of Prætorius and Susato – but this new recording by a most promising young group would be a highly recommendable next move.

1 My highly approving review of a recent Linn 2-SACD recording of William Lawes’ Royal Consort should have appeared by the time that you read this.  (CKD470, hybrid SACD or download from Linn or Hyperion).

Brian Wilson

20 Ayres for Two Trebles and Two Basses (1640s? World première recording)
Nos.14–16 in d minor
Pavin [5:03]
Galliard [1:43]
Aire [1:12]
Nos. 4–7 in B flat
Pavin [3:55]
Galliard [1:56]
Aire [1:43]
Sarabande [0:58]
Divisions in F for two bass viols [3:01]
Divisions in a minor for treble and bass viol [1:30]
20 Ayres: Nos. 1–3 in C
Pavin [4:29]
Aire [2:09]
Sarabande [1:49]
Nos. 17–20 in g minor
Pavin [5:06]
Galliard [1:57]
[Aire] [2:03]
[Sarabande] [1:38]
Divisions in C for two bass viols [2:15]
Divisions in a minor for treble and bass viol [2:12]
20 Ayres: Nos. 8–13 in D
Pavin [4:41]
Aire [1:52]
Corant [1:35]
Aire [1:44]
Aire [1:20]
[Sarabande] [1:58]

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