Pavans and Fantasies from the Age of Dowland

John Holloway, Monika Baer violin & viola, Renate Steinmann, Susanna Hefti viola, Martin Zelle bass violin
ECM New Series 481 0430
Dowland Lachrimae Pavans Jenkins Fantasy No. 12
W. Lawes 2 Airs for 4, Fantasy in C for 5 Locke Fantasy for 2
Morley Lamento for 2 Purcell Fantasy upon one note

Programming John Dowland’s seven ‘Lachrimae’ pavans in concert or on CD is always a problem. Should they be played as a single sequence or be interspersed with contrasted pieces? They are often grouped in suites with other pieces from the 1604 Lachrimae collection, despite Dowland apparently wanting to avoid conventional pavan-galliard pairs. John Holloway, leading a group of (to judge from the photo in the booklet) rather younger string players in a recording made in Zurich, opts to intersperse pieces by other composers, ranging from Thomas Morley (the Lamento from Canzonets for Two Voyces, 1595) to Henry Purcell (Fantasia upon One Note) – mostly not ‘from the age of Dowland’ but fine music all the same. On balance, I prefer the cumulative impact of the pavans played in a sequence to the varied programme offered here, but (as Holloway points out in the booklet) you can always change the order by programming your CD player.

Holloway and his group also had to decide how to score the ‘Lachrimae’ pavans and which key and pitch to choose when using a violin consort rather than viols – Dowland allowed for that option by describing the contents of Lachrimae on the title-page as ‘set forth for the Lute, Viols or Violons’. In 1992, when The Parley of Instruments recorded the whole collection using a Renaissance violin consort, we opted to transpose the seven pavans and the other low-tessitura pieces up a fourth, following the evidence in consort music for a process analogous to vocal chiavette. Also, with the gut strings then available we found it difficult to make the ‘Lachrimae’ pavans work at written pitch even at a’=440, particularly because the violas playing the tenor and quintus parts spend most of the time playing on the bottom strings. Holloway opts to play the pavans in the original key at a’=415 using four violas and bass violin, which makes them sound very dark indeed, though the third and fourth violas seem to have no problems with the low tessitura.

Holloway’s solution works well in practice, though it is unlikely to be historically correct. A basic principle of Renaissance instrumentation (as shown by the treatises of the period) is that full-voiced instrumental consorts should consist of three sizes of instrument, not two (or four, for that matter), and that pieces should be scored according to function: a soprano part should be played by a soprano instrument, inner parts by alto/tenor instruments and bass parts by bass instruments. Thus Dowland’s pavans should be played by a violin, three violas and bass; so far as I know the earliest piece for four violas and bass is the sinfonia to J. S. Bach’s Cantata no. 18. Also, Holloway opts to omit Dowland’s lute part, arguing that the music is complete in the five string parts, though that is not quite true, since the lute adds decorative flourishes at the end of sections that keep the rhythm going when the other instruments hold long notes. Dowland’s phrase ‘set forth for the Lute, Viols or Violins’ rather implies that he considered the bowed strings more dispensable than his own instrument. An alternative, which has not been explored to my knowledge, would be to perform Lachrimae with just lute, violin or treble viol and bass, a scoring used for dances published by Emanuel Adriaenssen and Louis de Moy.

Having got these musicological matters out of the way, I should say that the playing on this CD is very fine. The consort makes a wonderful sound (though sounding as if the instruments are set up in a rather later fashion than Dowland would have known), the tuning is excellent, and there is a real feeling that the players think through the music together in an intelligent and eloquent way. Also, I like the way in which they strike a balance between consistency and variety in Dowland’s pavans, playing them at roughly the same speed and in a similar style but finding their subtly different characters. The interspersed pieces make a good contrast. They are all fantasias or (in the case of two of William Lawes’s four-part airs) lively dances, and are all much brighter in sound, using two violins, though the two pieces for two trebles and bass (Jenkins’s Fantasia no. 12 in three parts and the fantasia from Set no. 3 of Locke’s Broken Consort) sound rather bare without accompaniment. Locke wrote out theorbo parts for these pieces and probably played the organ from his autograph score in performances, and it is likely that Jenkins’s three-part fantasias also had organ accompaniment, though no part survives for them. The five-part fantasias by Lawes (from the Set in C major) and Purcell receive dashing performances, though occasionally I was brought up short by a style of bowing that struck me as belonging to a later period. But all in all this is a fine recital of some wonderful music. It makes a good case for using violins in pieces normally thought to be part of the core viol consort repertory.

Peter Holman