Thursday 8 June 2017

The Excellency of Hand: English viola da gamba duos

English viola da gamba duos - Robert Smith, Paolo Pandolfo
John Jenkins, Christopher Simpson, Simon Ives, Robert Smith; Robert Smith, Paolo Pandolfo; Resonus Classics
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on June 06 2017
Star rating: 4.0

Engaging performances of virtuoso 17th century English viol duos

The 17th century English composer John Jenkins is best known for his sober melancholic music, but the booklet note for this new CD attributes this to the fact that much of Jenkins familiar repertoire was written for talented amateurs. On this new disc from Resonus Classics, viola da gamba players Robert Smith and Paolo Pandolfo explore the more virtuosic side of John Jenkins in a series of duos by Jenkins, Christopher Simpson, Simon Ives and even a prelude by Smith himself.

One of John Jenkins' surviving manuscripts is a second viol part from a duo which includes ornaments in Jenkins' own hand. Robert Smith's booklet article suggest the manuscript may have been written for one of Jenkins' talented pupils who needed some indication where to ornament, whereas Jenkins himself (playing the first viol part) would have improvised. Smith and Pandolfo use these ornaments to inform their playing in these duos, to dazzling effect.

Robert Smith & Paolo Pandolfo (Photo Resonus Ltd)
Robert Smith & Paolo Pandolfo (Photo Resonus Ltd)
Jenkins' pieces are interspersed with duos by Christopher Simpson who published the instruction manual The Division Violist in 1659 (revised as The Division Viol in 1665). Divisions were the English manner of taking a melody (or in fact often a bass line) and producing improvised elaborations, splitting longer notes with shorter ones, and larger intervals with smaller ones. Besides the more developed duos by Simpson, there are a series of tiny but characterful preludes taken from his treatise. Simon Ives is lesser known but wrote a significant amount of work for viols and we hear two attractive ayres for two bass viols.

There is a virtuoso yet melancholy cast to the music on this disc, with  melodies ornamented with amazing flurries of notes. There is some dazzling playing here, yet is is characterful and thoughtful too. The two players make a superbly balanced and supportive pairing.  For someone who might think they are familiar with the viola da gamba repertoire there is in fact a surprisingly variety in the orchestral textures in the music ranging from pizzicato to virtuoso fingerwork.

This is a delightfully engaging disc, which certainly opens up little known repertoire. And the two players' palpable enthusiasm and engagement comes over in the music

The Excellency of Hand: English viola da gamba duos
Music by John Jenkins (1592-1678), Christopher Simpson (c1605-1669), Simon Ives (1600-1662), Robert Smith (born 1980)
Robert Smith (viola da gamba)
Paolo Pandolfo (viola da gamba)
Recorded in the Oude Dorpskerk, Bunnik, The Netherlands, 13-15 October 2015
Available from Amazon.

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