Purcell: fantazias & in nomines

Sit Fast viol consort
66:46
Eloquentia EL1549
Unfinished Fantazia, three Fantazias a3, nine Fantazias a4, Fantazie Upon one note, In Nomines I & II

There are many recordings of these pieces from which one can choose. All six of those that I have heard to date are excellent in their own way: techniques more than adequate to the demands on the players, well-thought out renditions, lovingly played. What sets this one apart is the intensity generated by restraint – every choice dictated by the music itself.

Sit Fast play with exquisite poise, no exaggerated mannerisms, few added ornaments and only a very occasional use of vibrato. They vary the tempo within sections, following Purcell’s directions (‘Quick’, ‘Drag’) despite his writing the tempo changes into the note values. This is particularly effective in Fantazia 6 with its very chromatic ‘Slow’ which they take very slowly but with beautifully controlled soft playing, as, within the space of 17 bars, it migrates from C major through B flat minor to a cadence in F major, rapidly building an intensity of melancholy for which the poignant sound of the consort of viols is so appropriate.

The balance favours the bass viol, perhaps because the player, Josh Cheetham, is a strong player anyway, but not to the extent of masking the tenors in the 4-part pieces. The treble viol (Atushi Sakaï) displays controlled restraint, which lets the intensity of the inner parts through the texture, always unexpected, making you sit up and pay attention. Purcell’s youthful imagination seems to respond to an inner ‘dare’ – to question what might be possible, then pushes boundaries of chromaticism and dissonance as far as he can and then further. No wonder Handel found his music so striking.

The disc opens with a completion of the unfinished 4-part fantazia no 13, and then plays the rest in the order in which they occur in the autograph manuscript – the sole surviving source for these amazing works. The last of the 4-part fantazias, composed on 31st August 1680, despite, presumably, the heat of the summer, is on the surface, the most restrained. Its stately opening, the parts enter in normal polyphonic succession, no abrupt changes of tempo, just cunningly disguised morphing from flat to sharp keys and back again, no macho youthful showing off, just a subtle and sublimely expressive taming of the harmonic questions he had be asking all along.

Then we come to the coup de grace – the Fantazie Upon one note – did he have someone in mind for this, an incompetent but eager Royal perhaps? Or is it another ‘dare?’ Whatever the impetus, a masterpiece resulted. That leaves the two In Nomine settings, in six and seven parts respectively, leaving this listener at a loss for words – an advantage in a reviewer, no doubt. Highly recommended, even if you already have Fretwork and Phantasm and all.

Robert Oliver