Orlando Gibbons: fancies for the viol

L’Acheron (consort of viols)
Ricercar RIC384
74’10

The French consort of viols L’Acheron take their cheerful name from Greek mythology’s Acheron, the river of woe, one of the five rivers of Hades. More prosaically it is a real river that flows into the Ionian Sea. Cheerful or woeful, L’Acheron have produced one of the best discs, that I have ever heard, of music by Gibbons. Although I am a member of the Viola da Gamba Society, I am woefully – definitely not cheerfully – ignorant about the construction of what is probably my favourite instrument to listen to, but the inspiration for L’Acheron was “to construct a perfectly proportioned Consort of Viols according to the precepts current during the 17th century”. Certainly the sound they produce on their instruments – “manufactured between 2012 and 2017” – as a result of all their research, is most satisfying. Thankfully their interpretations of this selection of Gibbons’s consort music match the quality of their instruments.

They begin with the six-part Fantasia, no 39 in MB xlviii, Orlando Gibbons: consort music  edited by John Harper, which is enigmatic to the volume’s editor. In the absence of any provenance besides its single source, he worries that it might have been some form of vocal work transcribed for the viols, and he settles uneasily on the title given in that source. It is comfortably the longest of Gibbons’s consort pieces, and L’Acheron play it at the speed of the pavan which is implied in its opening bars. This leads to a duration of ten minutes, but whereas in less committed hands this period of time, and length of piece, could drag, the intensity of this superb performance attends to every detail yet maintains a momentum that draws the listener into Gibbons’s narrative. There are two more of Gibbons’s fantasias in six parts; neither of them is anywhere near as long as no 39 and they are more securely instrumental. There are also fantasias in two, three (including a pair “for the Double Base”) and four parts. Variety is provided by other works in forms other than the fancies, or fantasias, given in the disc’s title. Two of Gibbons’s three In nomines in five parts are performed. The information about both of them is misprinted in the booklet. The one in “d minor” is no 27 in Harper’s edition, not 25; and the one in “g minor” is not “a 6” as stated. That said, the latter joins the Fantasia  a6 no 39 as the equally outstanding item on the disc, being a sublime piece of music full of beguiling suspensions and spine-tingling melodies, played at exactly the right tempo to reveal every exquisite harmonic moment, while maintaining a purposeful momentum. Three dances are included: the six-part pavan and galliard pairing, and the galliard in three parts. The disc ends with another classic, the variations in six parts on the song Go from my window  which is worthy to stand beside Byrd’s setting for keyboard.

Unless, to paraphrase The Rolling Stones, you want or need a complete recording of Gibbons’s consort music (which does exist) there could not be a better selection on a single disc than the recording under review. The booklet’s notes are slightly one-eyed in their view of Gibbons in the continuum of Elizabethan and Jacobean consort composers, mentioning Tye only once, and paying no attention to his predecessors such as Parsons and Byrd, all three of whom composed outstanding consort music, without which Gibbons could not have achieved what he did in this medium. Otherwise, the combination of Gibbons’s matchless consort music, L’Acheron’s fine interpretations, and the beautiful sound of their instruments, renders this disc irresistible and incomparable.

Richard Turbet

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