John Jenkins (1592-1678) is better known to viol-players and aficionados of repertoire for the instrument than to the general listener, but on the evidence of this Signum release he ought to be more highly regarded. His long life spanned the reign of Elizabeth I and the heyday of the Restoration regime, and therefore represents an important link between the golden age of English consort music in the Tudor and Jacobean eras, and its final flowering with Purcell’s Fantasies for viols, despite the fact that Jenkins seemingly never held a formal position at court.
The seventeen Fantasias presented here – thought to be early works – are melodically and rhythmically sophisticated, demonstrating a contrapuntal facility that is the equal of any of Jenkins’s European contemporaries, in this or any other genre of music. Although they are not always as harmonically daring – they tend not to avail of characteristically English false relations – there some bold modulations in key. The members of Fretwork take all this in their stride with fluent and flexible readings of this contrasted music.
They start with the entry of the four viols one by one in imitation, in the manner of a Fugue, and crucially the musicians provide a distinctive character to each opening subject in terms of rhythm, tempo and articulation, although the four-part textures all become more or less integrated. The recording tends to privilege the more cantabile profile of Asako Morikawa’s contribution on treble viol, like a soprano soaring over lower-point counterpoint, and Richard Bootby’s bass sounds rather recessed, despite having a fully independent.
Ten of the Fantasias are written in the minor mode, but Fretwork generally keeps these brisk rather than loitering in any indulgent Dowland-esque melancholy. IV begins with a furtively-played subject as the two tenor instruments engage in dialogue, the livelier framing sections of VIII dominate the mood as against the sullen and tearful quaver motif of its middle section, and XVI maintains graceful lightness despite the seriousness of its musical material.
When Fretwork makes more expressive gestures, it is for good musical and structural reasons: the more tragic tone of IX is treated with a heavier touch; the modulations of VII are played with quieter concentration; and the minor-key section of XIV – otherwise in a bright major mode – is notably brooding. Other major-key Fantasias usually exude a corresponding lustre, rising optimistically and with dignity, like a sunrise, whilst others radiate a more palpable enthusiasm with a spring in their step without unsettling the music’s well-crafted and poised demeanour. The players negotiate the changes in tempo and mood of each Fantasia with a skilfully sustained ebb and flow to ensure that no single composition bores the ear while remaining integral. Although they were never intended to be heard collectively, nevertheless these readings compel attention.
The Fantasias are interspersed with two Pavans. That in D-minor is measured, solemn and sympathetic, and the sustained approach to the E-minor brings out its striated layers in marked contrast to the ebullience Fantasia XIV which falls before it.
The booklet note provides very little historical background or musical analysis and does not explain in what sense this release represents Jenkins’s “complete four-part consort music” when Grove lists other fantasia-suites for viols, and pieces for three string instruments and obbligato organ. But setting aside any carping, this recording offers an eloquent introduction to an accomplished and rewarding voice in English music.