Sweet Melancholy

Works for viol consort from Byrd to Purcell
cellini consort
59:13
Coviello Classics COV 91604

For an apparently restricted genre, the English viol consort enjoyed a surprisingly long life. From its first stirrings in the 1520s until Purcell’s final homage to this highly refined and cultivated genre in his great 3 and 4-part Fantazias, the viol consort remained at both court and country the chamber music-form par excellence in England.

The present disc gives a survey of this repertoire for two- and three-part consort across most of the period it was at its highest point. Superficially music for viol consort developed relatively little throughout its long history. We find the same equality of parts exploring an often dense labyrinth of counterpoint that obviously owes its genesis to the great tradition of vocal polyphony. Yet as the two opening and cleverly juxtaposed items on the CD clearly demonstrate there is world of difference between the gravely dignified Fantasia of Thomas Lupo (1571-1627) – a piece that might well qualify under the disc’s ‘Sweet Melancholy’ rubric – and the first of Purcell’s 3-part Fantazias. There, although the emphasis on contrapuntal complexity remains fundamentally unchanged, the textures are more open, with contrasted sections that owe their place to 17th century Italian influences on the form.

Although the discs title might serve as a catchy handle, it also implies a restriction of mood that is not borne out by the repertoire included. Take, for example, the first of three fantasias by Orlando Gibbons, a piece that employs brief, almost fragmentary motifs to create a dynamic thrust that hints at the restless impetuosity of William Lawes. Consider, too, the music of Matthew Locke, given a more generous share than anyone. The first of a pair of 2-part Fantasias finds Locke exploiting chromaticism to disquieting effect, while the second owns to the new expressivity imported from Italy.

The performances by the Swiss-based Cellini Consort are exceptionally accomplished, give or take the occasional rough edge, with richly expressive and musical playing from its three members, all of whom apparently play both treble and bass viol on the disc. The disc might indeed well qualify as a fine introduction to the repertoire, though it should be remembered that much its greatest music was composed for larger consorts.

Brian Robins

Brian Robins