Christopher Simpson: Ayres & Graces

Chelys Consort of Viols, Dan Tidhar & James Akers
59:38
BIS-2153 SACD

The re-scoring of Lawes’ Royall Consort for two treble violins and two bass viols with lute continuo has been described by some scholars as part of a progression. The earlier four-part instrumentation of treble, alto, tenor and bass viols (Byrd, Ferrabosco, Jenkins) was replaced by two trebles, tenor and bass viols, (Mico, Lupo), which in turn became two trebles and two basses (Jenkins, Lawes, Simpson). This in turn led to the standard baroque trio sonata of two trebles and basso continuo, but not before it had produced a significant repertoire of marvellous music. Lawes’ second version is fairly well known, together with Jenkins ‘Newark Siege’, but Simpson’s music is yet to achieve that prominence given to his contemporaries; a surprise, given his status as a ‘teacher’ of the modern viol players.

It will be even more of a surprise to many listeners of this recording. Simpson’s music has such melodic charm, so much immediate appeal, particularly when as well played as this, one imagines that one could find a book about him and his music, or, maybe these days, an extensive article on the Internet. Where are the scholars when you need them?

There is no shortage of recordings of his Divisions for one or two bass viols, or of extracts from ‘The Seasons’ and ‘The Months’ for this instrumentation, but very few of theses Ayres. And it is surely time that this mysterious man, who left such marvellous gifts to us, has the profile he deserves.

This recording will undoubtedly gain a measure of it for him. All twenty Ayres are recorded here, interspersed with divisions for two basses, or treble and bass, with continuo. It makes for a nicely varied programme, and the recorded sound is wonderfully sonorous, rich and voluptuous. The treble viols are beautifully matched, the balance with the two basses is very satisfying. The playing captures the impulsive nature of the music, vigorously rhythmic as appropriate for the dance forms, which include Pavins and Galliards, not danced at this time, and thus music for listening and enjoying, played with passion precision and brilliance in the divisions.

The booklet could have given a little more information about the instruments – it points out that they are strung throughout in gut, as appropriate for this period, and indeed the balance reflects this. There is a lovely bright sound from all the instruments.

The photograph of the ensemble shows a different set of instruments than those that feature on this recording. But these are minor cavils in the face of a recording that is so worth having, both for its novelty – it’s the first complete recording of the Ayres – and for its quality.

Robert Oliver