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Viol Consort Not at All Vile

Bass viol by Barak Norman, 1692, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Bass viol by Barak Norman, 1692, Metropolitan Museum of Art
This review is an Ionarts exclusive.

On Sunday evening, the Smithsonian Chamber Music Society hosted an excellent concert by a viol consort formed more or less for the occasion. In the glorious Grand Salon of the Renwick Gallery, five musicians performed on historical instruments from the Smithsonian collection (two treble viols, one tenor, and two basses). This ultra-specialized pick-up group is not a regular ensemble, but it brings together Kenneth Slowik, the artistic director of the SCMS series (and curator of the instrument collection), with Catharina Meints (of Oberlin and the Cleveland Orchestra), Marie Dalby (of the New York Consort of Viols), Craig Trompeter (of Baroque Band, and whom I happen to have met many years ago through early music friends in Chicago), and Brent Wissick (of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill).

The concert was programmed at the request of an anonymous patron -- thank you! -- who wanted to hear a performance of all nineteen of Christopher Tye's five-part settings of the In Nomine melody. You might think that this would be the kiss of death as far as selling tickets, but every seat was filled, many of them an hour beforehand for Slowik's pre-concert lecture. In Nomine was a fragment of the Sarum chant used as the cantus firmus of a famous four-voice passage in the Benedictus section of John Taverner's Missa Gloria tibi trinitas, played widely by viol consorts in the English Renaissance and used as the basis for an array of new compositions based on it. Composers tackled the In Nomine like a proof of one's contrapuntal chops, but few took to the genre like Christopher Tye, who seemed intent on doing as many different variations on the concept as possible. This performance was technically assured, if not note-perfect, weaving the warm halo of sound from these exquisite 17th-century instruments into a carefully balanced ensemble.

In Nomine:
Available from Amazon

Available from Amazon
Rose Consort of Viols
Hearing Tye's settings one after the other put the range of compositional approaches in high relief. The plaintive, somber no. 1 ("Rachells weepinge") with its acerbic cross-relations contrasted with the chase of upper voices and the dance-like closing section of no. 7 ("Follow me"). Standing out as particularly gorgeous were the more upbeat no. 12 ("Beleve me") and the more agitated no. 13 ("Crye" -- see the online scores), with its vociferatons of repeated eighth notes, and greater rhythmic complexity appeared in the later numbers like no. 19 ("Reporte" -- listen to an online recording). After that rigorous listening exercise -- it takes a little over thirty minutes, if you are curious about that -- the group offered a sampling of other pieces for viol consort. This included notably two five-part In Nomine settings by William Byrd, who as usual stood out for his melodic and harmonic invention.

The other noteworthy discoveries were some of the three-part fantasias by Orlando Gibbons, which provided some textural variation by combining different sizes of viol, and the striking C minor consort set (suite) by William Lawes, whose dance movements, especially the mournful Pavan, provided some relief from the contrapuntal writing that pervaded this concert. Henry Purcell's showy, ingenious Fantasia on a Single Note is a tour-de-force arrangement of four voices around the single held note of the first bass viol. It served as a delightful encore, too, as Slowik invited the audience to hum or sing along on the held note, which provided a visceral way to appreciate the compositional prowess of this superlative British composer, born 350 years ago this year.

The next concert in the Masterworks of Five Centuries series from Smithsonian Chamber Music Society is a Schubertiade, featuring violinists Ian Swensen and Marilyn McDonald, violist Douglas McNabney, and Kenneth Slowik playing both cello and fortepiano (February 15, 7:30 pm).

Christopher Tye, In Nomine Nos. 7 ("Follow me"), 3 "Rachells weepinge"),
and 10 ("Crye"), Phillip W. Serna and colleagues, Northwestern University

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