Sunday 7th FebruaryFebruary 8, 2010
Some 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 Â 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. Â 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.