Christopher SIMPSON (c. 1605-1669) The Four Seasons [74:49]
Hille Perl, Marthe Perl, Frauke Hess (viols)
Lee Santana (cittern & theorbo)
Johannes Gontarski (banrdora, guitar & cittern)
Andreas Küppers (positive organ)
rec. 4-7 December 2015, St. Onsdag in Mandelsloh. DEUTSCHE HARMONIA MUNDI 88875190982 [74:49]
While there is some information about the content of The Four Seasons, Deutsche Harmonia Mundi has largely gone for the quasi-glam poetic kind of booklet for this release which forces us to look elsewhere for information about Christopher Simpson himself. To be honest there isn’t much documented evidence to go on, so I quote my review of his Ayres and Graces on the BIS label: “Christopher Simpson's life has left little in the way of written records, so we have few details other than that he was a quarter-master for the Earl of Newcastle who was on the Royalist side during the English Civil War. His theoretical treatise A Compendium of Practical Musick in 5 parts, teaching by a New, and easie Method has survived and was first published in 1665. Purcell considered it “the most ingenius book I e'er met with upon this subject.”
Simpson is associated with music for the viola da gamba, and The Seasons is a set of Fantasies for three viols: one treble, two bass, and basso continuo options that in this case include plucked strings and organ, not all used at the same time, so introducing a nice element of contrast. Each of the Seasons, winter, spring, summer and autumn, is cast in three movements, opening with an introductory Fantasia followed by Almain and Galliard dance movements that have undergone considerable embellishment and elaboration.
While some thought has gone into the character of each season, I doubt whether many would be able to pick out which is which on a blind audition. Unlike Vivaldi, Simpson hasn’t gone in for overtly poetic associations as far as one can tell, and so there are no special effects of dogs barking, storm scenes or shivering peasants. Each movement is quite a substantial experience in its own right however, and the attractive resonance of the viols with their rhythmic and harmonic support is a lovely space to inhabit. Sirius Viols keep vibrato in reserve for very occasional use, and the thrumming grace and elegance of the music is communicated with an expressive, at times almost vocal quality.
Simpson is always compared with his more adventurous contemporary William Lawes, and indeed there is less of a harmonic adventure to be found here than in, for instance, Lawes’ Consorts to the Organ (review). This said it is, indeed, quite remarkable how effective The Four Seasons is over its 75-minute span, despite the diatonic diet on offer. You may prefer to dip in rather than play this in one go, but there is enough of a feast on offer to keep everything going from start to finish, and the musicians’ clear devotion to these pieces shines through at every turn of phrase. With a beautiful recording to match the playing, this is a very welcome addition to our understanding of English 17th century viol music.