Beauty, Emotion and Warmth in 17th Century Viol Concert

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Ferrabosco, Holborne, Brade, Gibbons, Locke, William Lawes, Jenkins, Hespèrion  XXI [Jordi Savall (treble viol, director), Philippe Pierlot (treble and bass viols), Sergi Casademut (tenor viol), Friederike Heumann (bass viol), Xavier Puertas (consort bass), Michael Beringer (organ)], The Music Room, Gregynog Hall, Powys, 21.06.2014.

Alfonso Ferrabosco: Dovehouse Pavan à 5
Anthony Holborne: The Teares of the Muses à 5
William Brade: Mohrfields à 5, Ein Schottisch Tanz
Orlando Gibbons: Royal Fantasy XII à 3, In Nomine à 4
Matthew Locke: Consort Sett V à 4 in G minor
William Lawes: Consort Sett V à 5 in C major, Consort Sett III à 5 in C minor
John Jenkins: Pavan No.2 à 5 in G minor, The Newark Siege à 4, In Nomine No 1 à 6
Matthew Locke: Consort Sett II à 4 in D minor/major


One of the great (and still somewhat underrated) glories of English music is the seventeenth-century body of work for viol consort. George Chapman (c.1650-1634) a remarkable poet, a dramatist and the finest English translator of Homer, when dedicating his 1616 volume, The Divine Poem of Musæus, to the architect Inigo Jones affirmed that both “ancient poesie, and ancient Architecture” sought to create “a proportionable Rapture”. This last phrase of Chapman’s might surely be extended to a third art, music, since it finds a perfect embodiment in the best of the music the composers contemporary with both Chapman and Jones wrote for the consort of viols. To my mind and ears the phrase, indeed, has never seemed more perfectly apt than when listening to this wonderful programme, powerfully and exquisitely performed by Jordi Savall and his consort, the music (and the performance) being both perfectly ordered and balanced and generative of (as well, as in a sense, seemingly produced out of) rapture. It is not, I suppose, something that a reviewer is supposed to admit, but I confess that there were points in this concert when I found myself, in the words of one of the Oxford English dictionary’s definitions of ‘rapture’, in a state of “ecstatic delight, or joy”. Although I have never found the consort music of William Lawes and John Jenkins less than fascinating, I have never previously been so moved by its beauty and emotional weight. Savall and his colleagues are not afraid of either vibrato or warmth of tone, while never indulging in either to a degree which might obscure, say, the refinement and clarity of the contrapuntal writing in Jenkins’s five part Pavan in G.

Perhaps the setting had something to do with the rich experience this concert provided. The Music Room at Gregynog Hall is wood-pannelled with a vaulted roof,  and the acoustic is excellent; it provides 180 seats (all were taken), big enough to give almost any kind  of music room to breathe, small enough to provide (without any sense of claustrophobia) the intimacy music such as this requires and rewards. On a lovely summer evening, one or two windows were opened to the idyllically beautiful rural surroundings of the Hall’s gardens and estate. The occasional melodic contribution made by a songbird attracted by what the seventeenth-century poet, and music lover, Edward Benlowes called the “Viol’s warbling voice” helped to make the music of the viol consort (which is in a sense highly artificial, the product of high and refined art) seem as natural as breathing. Another poet contemporary with many of these composers, George Wither wrote, in his poem Fair Virtue, the Mistress of Philarete (1622), of a moment when “from a grove was heard / A set of viols”. On this evening a “set of viols” was heard (and evidently enjoyed) in the neighbouring groves.

Although Hespèrion XXI’s programme was presented under the general title of ‘The Teares of the Muses’, this was I no sense an exclusively lachrymose evening of music. The very first piece heard, Alfonso Ferrabosco’s ‘Dovehouse Pavan’ has a grave dignity, a ceremonious, processional quality which far transcends the merely tearful. Later items on the programme, including William Brade’s ‘Ein Schottisch Tanz’ and the Fantasys of Locke and Lawes in their ‘Consort Setts’, explored diverse emotions, while John Jenkins’s ‘The Newark Siege’, with its mimetic sounds of fanfare and battle, while remembering and commemorating the Royalist dead, is chiefly concerned to celebrate Prince Rupert’s victory at Newark in 1644. The theme of this year’s Gregynog Festival (supremely well-planned and featuring a remarkable roster of performers) is ‘War’ and ‘The Newark Siege’ was obviously the single piece in the programme which was most explicitly related to that theme. But the Civil War impacted on the lives of all three of the later-born composers whose work was performed in this concert. William Lawes (b. 1602) was killed when part of a Royal troop at Rowton Heath in September 1645; his friend John Jenkins (b. 1592) lost his court position when the War broke out in 1642 and appears to have survived the war years by teaching music in two Royalist households, before securing an appointment at the court of Charles II after the Restoration of 1660. Matthew Locke (b. c.1621), another of Royalist sympathies, may possibly have accompanied Charles I onto the continent in 1646 and was another who obtained musical employment at the court of Charles II. All had their careers badly disrupted (or in the case of Lawes ended) by the Civil War, and the musical forms and styles in which they felt most at home and in which they had excelled were generally regarded as rather old-fashioned in the years after the Restoration, when the taste of Charles II and his courtiers leaned much more towards the modern French style.

I have assiduously collected and listened to Jordi Savall’s recordings for many years, but this was the first opportunity I had had to hear him perform in person. Getting to hear one’s musical ‘heroes’ (or ‘heroines’) ‘live’ after a long fa iliarity with their work in recorded form, can be a recipe for major disappointment. But the experience was entirely happy on this occasion, being all – and perhaps more – than I had hoped it would be. Savall is, in manner, a modestly self-effacing man, courteous and scholarly, clearly not wishing to attract attention away from his colleagues. Yet his leadership of the group was clear and quietly authoritative. Under his leadership Hespèrion XXI responded perfectly to the varied demands of their programme, whether the energetic dancing rhythms of Brade’s ‘Ein Schottisch Tanz’ or the gravely eloquent sonorities of Ferrabosco’s ‘Dovehouse Pavan’, the almost painfully beautiful inventiveness of Gibbons’s ‘In Nomine’, or the serene ‘Pavan’ and the more playful ‘Air’ which succeeds it in Lawes’s ‘Consort Sett V in C major’.

When the formal part of the programme was complete, an enthralled audience had no intention of letting the music end there. Two encores were successfully insisted upon. Both were intelligently and shrewdly chosen by Savall. Having taken his audience through a great part of the English viol tradition, which began, I suppose with William Byrd, Savall and Hespèrion XXI played as their first encore a piece for consort by the last great English composer to use the form, Henry Purcell, his four-part Fantasy No.12 in D minor of 1680, dated ‘August ye 31 1680’. Intricate and subtle both harmonically and rhythmically, this piece shows that though the viol consort may have seemed old-fashioned in a court at which the French taste was becoming dominant its possibilities were by no means exhausted at the hands and mind of a brilliant young composer (Purcell was barely 21 at the time he wrote it!). Savall then chose to bring the evening to an end, by going back to the earlier years of the Seventeetnth Century, with the  altogether more obviously vivacious music of William Brade’s ‘Der Satyrn Tanz’ (Dance of the Satyrs), full of infectious pizzicato passages, with just the element of grotesquerie that its title suggests. Like everything else in the concert it was played with love, scholarship and a desire to share the perfromers’ pleasure in the music. In Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing Benedick observes “Is it not strange that sheep’s guts should hale souls out of men’s bodies?”. Quite what kind of music he and other charascetrs are hearing at this moment isn’t absolutely clear from the printed text and it is often assumed to be the playing of a lute in accompaniment of a song sung by Balthasar; but I have long thought that the language seems better fitted to the sound of a consort of viols – never more so than during and after this beautiful concert.

Glyn Pursglove

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