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John JENKINS (1592-1678)
Complete Four-part Consort Music
Fantasias No. 1-17
Pavans in D and E minor
Fretwork (Asako Morikawa (treble viol), Reiko Ichise, Sam Stadlen, Emily Ashton (tenor viols), Richard Boothby (bass viol))
rec. 2016, St Mary Magdalen Church, Sherborne, UK
SIGNUM CLASSICS SIGCD528 [42:35 + 40:27]

English music for a viol consort of four to six players flourished in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century, and became old-fashioned by the time of the Restoration. Yet it was as brilliant as it was brief, and this repertoire is a treasure-house for those who explore it. It was written for amateurs, usually aristocrats, to perform in private during a period when aristocrats were expected to be cultivated; they were also expected to be able to speak several languages and to sing madrigals at sight. Standards have fallen since then.

Consort music began as adaptations of vocal works but composers started writing music specifically for viol consorts. Typically viols came in a matched set, known as a chest from the box which contained them and their associated paraphernalia, and would consist of two treble, two tenor and two bass viols. They were played on or between the knees, like a cello, not under the chin, like a violin. They had flat instead of rounded backs and were slower to speak than the violin and its family, which supplanted them. The pieces written for viols were all short. The longest of the fantasias on these discs is about five minutes and the two pavans are slightly longer. But their quality was often very high – fully equivalent to the string quartets of a later period.

John Jenkins was one of the brightest stars in the period of the English viol consort. He wrote fantasias in six and five parts, which have been recorded by Phantasm, and rather more in four parts, which we have here, played by Fretwork. Jenkins seems to have had a quiet life, mostly spent away from court, in the service of noble families, particularly in Norfolk. His style is mellifluous, with a considerable use of ‘divisions’, in which longer notes are divided into ever shorter ones. It is much less obviously surprising than that of his former pupil William Lawes. Scores in modern notation are available here.

These four-part fantasias are easier to follow than the five and six part ones, and make an admirable entry point to this repertoire. They are easy to listen to, attractive and varied, and, though written for the pleasure of the performers, also give pleasure to listeners. The ear quickly adjusts to the different character of viols, as opposed to the violin family: contemplative, somewhat withdrawn and inclined to melancholy, but also capable of playfulness, always courteous, never shrill or aggressive.

Fretwork have been playing together for over forty years, though with some changes in personnel, and they know how this music should go. If I were to contrast them with Phantasm, the other leading viol consort, I would say that Phantasm play with slightly more of an ear towards later chamber music, whereas Fretwork’s style is slightly plainer. Both styles are legitimate and convincing. The recording is both intimate and warm and the notes, in English only, are interesting. This is a valuable addition to the none too generous representation of Jenkins on disc.

Stephen Barber

 

 



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