Classical Sundays

Sunday 7th February

February 8, 2010

fretworkSome days even my lucky rocketship underpants don’t help. Actually that’s not quite accurate as today wasn’t so bad. Things have been a bit tough around here of late but this afternoon I managed some rest time, a and went for a long walk into the country despite rainclouds looming and everything turning grey. The photo at the bottom of the page was taken, by iPhone on my walk, but I turned the image black and white in photoshop. It wasn’t quite that grey out there…

As today is Sunday and I am feeling very guilty about slacking on my classical music posting, my walk was accompanied by the first of five discs that form part of a five CD set of seventeenth century English viol music by a group named Fretwork. Actually I don’t own the CDs yet and downloaded the music from iTunes for now. I was recommended this set, which sells at a dirt-cheap price on one of the Virgin labels, by the Advice Lady a week or so back, and as I have been too busy to get to a CD shop over the last week Apple’s virtual domain will have to do for now. The set contains recordings of the music of four English composers, Lawe, Locke, Purcell and on the disc I have been playing today John Jenkins.

So the usual caveats here when I write about classical music, and early music in particular; I haven’t a clue about the technical details or much in the way of contextual information about this music. All I can do is put it on the CD player, try and keep an open mind and open ears and see what happens. Without the benefit of having the liner notes to hand, Wikipedia (hopefully reliably) informs me that Jenkins lived to the surprisingly old age of 86, passing away in 1678 and living right through the English Civil War, thus he wrote music just a little later than John Dowland, whose lute music I discovered and wrote about here. Obviously, compared to the more minimal, stripped down music written for lute, the nineteen pieces for assorted combinations of viols (plus an organ on five of the tracks) are more fully formed and richer in timbre and depth, and perhaps more appealing to me than the Dowland recordings as a result.

There  are fantasies, suits written for specific combinations of pieces and in nomine septets here and all have a certain balanced beauty to them, a feeling of slow melancholy, even when the tempo is actually quite quick. The viol sound is wonderful, that grainy, earthy texture to each stroke of a bow across strings has a richness to it I like a lot, particularly coming at a time when I have been listening to a lot of music played on immaculate modern stringed instruments. Some of the music here is really quite slow and languid, and this is the music I find the most attractive here, the progression through different notes that little bit slower and so there is less of a feeling of uptempo spritely rhythm and the interplay between the different weights of the viols can be heard easier. The second track of the nineteen, the Fantasy a 6 No 8 in A Minor, a work for six viol musicians is perhaps my favourite here. It begins with resounding, deep swaying strokes from the bass viols and gradually develops into a more complex, layered work that is marvelous to sit and try and untangle in your head as it plays.

This is very much how I have found I like to enjoy this music. Like with much of the romantic classical strings music I have been listening to of late I like to try and pick out individual instruments from within the music and try and follow them through, so that in the case of a string quartet for instance, there might be four different perspectives from which to enjoy the music. In truth I rarely manage to sustain this for long, and more often than not will confuse one instrument for another and end up following a different path through the music, but this is all part of the pleasure. Here it is difficult to make out one viol from another on the pieces than involve more than two or three instruments. The sound of the massed strings comes together into one harmonic swell much of the time. The ninth track on the disc, the In Nomine a 6 No.2 in E Minor is also quite stunningly beautiful, again all six weights of the viol flowing together, slowly with a deep, resonant bass undertow to the massed sound. The two suites here both include an organ as an additional instrument, supplementing a treble and two bass viols on the three part Suite No.7 in D Minor and the same group with an additional treble on the two part Suite No.4 in C Major.  These two works are more intimate than the septet pieces. The organ sound is so close to the deeper viols that often they can be hard to tell apart. but in general these works are a little more airy and reveal their workings more, providing a nice gentle contrast to the heavier more dense pieces. Overall though the nineteen works here have a quite glorious sense of fluid, languorous warmth to them, and they really are quite beautiful. The temptation of this area of early music is to put it on in the background as some kind of mood enhancer, and I have no doubt that a good number of these CDs are bought to be used in that way, but I have found great pleasure today in closing my eyes and relaxing deeply into the fine threads of the music and enjoying the sensation of being carried along by it. Not while I was walking though…

Before next Sunday I will try and pick up a physical copy of this set and see if I can spend some time with a couple more of the discs to write about next Sunday.


Comments (13)

  • Wombatz

    February 23, 2010 at 10:34 pm

    The saddest cause, picking burial music for my grandma in law. She lived to be 96 and had become the sweetest being ever somewhen along the way. Comparing stuff, those Fretwork interpretations really come across, well, as bossy. I used to be in love with their Dowland Lachrimae, but I take that back. While the composition’s genius and can stand the heavy riffing approach, the music makes much more sense with a question mark adorning the heck of it …

  • Richard Pinnell

    February 23, 2010 at 11:16 pm

    Wombatz, first of all my condolences for your sad loss. I hope the burial is a fitting goodbye.

    As for these recordings, well, you are probably correct, but the Fretwork recordings are the only ones I know. Can you recommend a better set of recordings? I would love to listen and compare.

  • graham halliwell

    February 24, 2010 at 2:59 am

    “Can you recommend a better set of recordings?”

    Please elucidate, Wombatz, I’m interested to know your thoughts as well. I’ve never particularly enjoyed Fretwork’s sound/approach either, bossy is a great way of describing it, and prefer Jordi Savall. Your findings would be welcome.

  • Wombatz

    February 24, 2010 at 10:33 am

    Erm, I just had to make do with what I found in my collection, so I can’t elucidate much further. It will be Tallis as played by The King’s Noyse. I understand they’re equally heavyweight, but their playing is so much more human. Funny how these things resonate. I never really had questioned the Fretwork CDs, since I’ve inherited them from a uncle who died much too young (yes, it all seems to relate), but they’ve decidedly refused to make sense in this here context …

  • Wombatz

    February 24, 2010 at 1:02 pm

    Yes and sorry but death sucks …

  • Richard Pinnell

    February 24, 2010 at 8:32 pm

    Ok Thanks Wombatz. If you find the time to list some recordings you might recommend at a more suitable time please feel free to do so. Graham, Savall is on my list of names to investigate and has been for quite some time. What’s a good starting point?

  • Wombatz

    February 24, 2010 at 8:56 pm

    Sorry to have been obscure. I absolutely endorse The King’s Noyse. Savall’s too flashy for me, I’m afraid.

  • graham halliwell

    February 24, 2010 at 10:11 pm

    I appreciate Jordi Savall is not to everyone’s taste, but I think his approach to sound (both in terms of music and recording) is usually captivating. Flashy is not a word I would use to describe his playing or productions, but passionate with a singular, personal vision.

    solo viol – Tobias Hume “Musical Humors”; and a nice triple box of St Colombe and Marin Marais called “Pieces de Viol”;

    with Hesperion XX ensemble try Dowland “Lachrimae or Seven Tears” and also Cristobal de Morales “Officium Defunctorum….”. He has also recorded the music of Lawes but I can’t find the CD. It’ll be in the AllaVox catalogue.

    I’m also passionate about his version of Monteverdi’s Vespers; but be warned Richard, this is very religious vocal and ensemble music. But what we must understand is that the move from the Court system to the Church as an employer allowed Monteverdi to experiment further and write his most adventurous music. And Monteverdi was a musical innovator in every sense of the word. Is it any wonder that Feldman was also passionate about Monteverdi??

    Anyhow, that little lot should keep you going for a day or two :-) If I think of any more I’ll let you know. FWIW, Mark W and David Reid are also big Savall fans, so maybe they will chip in.

  • Richard Pinnell

    February 24, 2010 at 10:58 pm

    Thanks Graham, I will look some of those up.

    Regarding the Monteverdi Vespers, Simon Profitt of Fourier Transform and Traw fame once sent me a recording he made that timestretched several of these pieces so that they all lasted the same length, and then overlaid them all into one audio file. The resulting piece was incredible, awesome music in the proper use of that word, huge in scale and intensity. Probably thoroughly sacriligeous to those that appreciate the work in itself but I thought I’d mention it. I don’t think it ever got released anywhere though I might be wrong.

  • mark

    February 25, 2010 at 12:30 pm

    solo viol – Tobias Hume “Musical Humors”; and a nice triple box of St Colombe and Marin Marais called “Pieces de Viol”;

    I endorse Graham’s recommendations above and to those I would add;

    J.S. Bach “Die Sonaten fur Viola da Gamba und Cembalo” (Alia Vox)
    Tavener/Parsons/Woodcosk etc “Elizabethan Consort Music 1558-1603” (Alia Vox)
    Lluis Del Mila “Fantasies, Pavanes & Gallardes 1536” (Astree)
    Matthew Locke “Consort of Fower Parts” (Astree)
    John Coprario “Consort Musicke” (Astree)
    Mr Demachy “Pieces de violle, 1685” (Astree)

  • graham halliwell

    February 25, 2010 at 7:43 pm

    had a feeling Wastellovsky would have a few solo viol titles to add; Savall is an artist we’ve had a shared interest in for a long while. The Astree titles are not produced anymore, but are sometimes still available. Check also that hey haven’t been transferred to Savall’s AliaVox label – those that have tend to sound better as they have been carefully remastered.

    “Simon Profitt of Fourier Transform and Traw fame once sent me a recording he made that timestretched several of these pieces so that they all lasted the same length, and then overlaid them all into one audio file. The resulting piece was incredible, awesome music in the proper use of that word, huge in scale and intensity”.

    Maybe the Listen Series would be a nice place for these to live, Richard. I’m sure Al’s piece is getting a bit lonely by now………

  • Richard Pinnell

    February 25, 2010 at 8:32 pm

    Thanks for the list Mark, sorry I missed it earlier. I will seek out some Jimmy, sorry Jordi Savall very soon.

    There will be more at the Listen Series soon (ish) fear not…

  • mark

    March 10, 2010 at 10:50 am

    Hi Richard. If you find yourself at a loose end and don’t mind a trip to Norwich, Graham and I will be attending, tickets safely in-hand!

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