Tilting at Windmills

Mico Consort
Son an ero 12

The Mico Consort, based in France, consists of three violists and an organist. This would not seem an ideal combination for playing a programme such as this, a proportion of which consists of music for viols, much of it in four or five parts, by Byrd and his English contemporaries Tye and of course Mico. Of these only Tye’s Sit fast is performed by the forces, three viols, for which it was composed. They also play pieces by Locke, Coprario, Jenkins and Baltzar appropriate to their personnel, and the organist Anne-Marie Blondel plays four pieces.

Three of Byrd’s five-part In nomines and his Browning are played by 3 viols and organ. Why? The textures are all wrong, impeding and unbalancing Byrd’s narrative. The same is true regarding the two fantasias and, especially, the pavan by Mico. Byrd’s two In nomines in four parts fare better, because the organ plays the cantus firmus and the three viols the contrapuntal parts. Gibbons’ fantasia a6 (MB48/33) is played on the organ. Again, why? Is it because a short score survives and is interpreted by the musicians as indicating the possibility of contemporary performance on the organ alone? Mme Blondel follows this short score in places, and expands upon it in others. The number of surviving fantasias for keyboard by Gibbons runs well into double figures, and their textures differ from this example. Some of them have had all too few recordings. The other three performances on the organ are a vivacious rendition of Tomkins’ Ground (MB5/40); an impressively engaged version of Byrd’s The Bells,surprisingly one of the first commercial recordings of the work to be played on the organ; and to conclude the disc, a radiant performance of Bull’s Salve regina (MB14/40). Here is also a modern piece by Geraud Chirol which gives the disc its title, an incongruous work for the forces of the ensemble.

The presentation is unsatisfactory. Some works are identified merely as ”Ground”, “Fantasia/e” or “Ayre”. There is also a weird piece of translation in the booklet, where a Pavane en la mineur by Jenkins, played on the instruments for which it was intended (see below), is described in the English translation as “a rather tamely written piece” while the original French says “une piece de facture assez sage”. Sage = tame? And if it is tame, why record it? Jenkins’ pavan is not tame, nor is anything in his vast and distinguished oeuvre. This piece also provides a good illustration of the inadequate identifications mentioned above. A search of the Viola da Gamba Society’s thematic index under Jenkins for a pavan in A minor among his hundreds of works proved initially fruitless. By sheer good fortune, on the Presto website there is a “Pavan for 2 bass viols in A minor” listed on a disc of Jenkins’ music performed by Fretwork, with recorded incipits of each track. This turned out to be the same piece. Returning to the VgGS thematic index, I went again to the section on music for bass viols and, having previously scanned the index looking for pieces titled “pavan”, I found the work under the title “[Ayre]”. This took the best part of an hour. It was interesting before it became frustrating, after which I emerged triumphant, albeit rather fortunately, but it was also a huge waste of my time. The item is no 1 in the VdGS listing of Jenkins’ music for two bass viols, and is available from Fretwork Editions and Dovehouse Editions.

This is a curate’s egg of a disc.  Performances by the ensemble tend to be uninspiring and, in the case of the works by Byrd and Mico, are unnecessary. One of the pieces played as an organ solo is a waste of a track but, to conclude on a positive note, the other three organ solos are all estimable.

Richard Turbet

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