Wednesday 28 June 2023

Music of such engaging variety and imagination: Richard Boothby's 'Music to hear...' exploring Alfonso Ferrabosco's 1609 book of music for solo lyra viol

Music to hear... - Alfonso Ferrabosco: Music for the Lyra Viol; Richard Boothby, Asako Morikawa; Signum Classics
Music to hear... - Alfonso Ferrabosco: Music for the Lyra Viol; Richard Boothby, Asako Morikawa; Signum Classics

The lyra viol is a type of small bass viol that was popular in England in the 17th century and for which a specific repertoire was created. Viol player Richard Boothby has already recorded the complete lyra viol music of William Lawes and here, on a new Signum Classics disc Music to hear..., Boothby turns his attention to pieces from Alonso Ferrabosco's Lessons for 1, 2 and 3 viols. The majority of the works on the disc are for solo viol, but Boothby is joined by Asako Morikawa for some.

Despite his exotic name, Alfonso Ferrabosco (1575-1628) was English. His father, Alfonso Ferrabosco, the Elder was an Italian composer, born in Bologna, who ended up in England working for Queen Elizabeth I. Marriage to an English woman followed, but then he returned to Italy leaving his son as security with a flute player who played for the Queen. The elder Alfonso never returned to England, but his son flourished under both Queen Elizabeth and King James I. An association with the playwright Ben Johnson began in 1605 when he wrote the music for the Masque of Blackness – designed by Inigo Jones, and then for next year’s Twelfth Night celebrations, Hymenaei, which Jonson praised highly. He also composed music for Jonson's plays.

The first mention of the lyra viol is in one of Jonson's plays, from 1600, and the idea behind the instrument and repertoire was that it evoked the Ancient Greek lyre. The instrument used a whole variety of tunings, and Ferrabosco uses three different ones in his collection of pieces. Apart from a handful, all the pieces in Ferrabosco's 1609 publication are dances Almaines, Galliards, Corantos and Pavans, printed in pairs with each Almaine, Galliard or Pavan having a short Coranto following it. 

In his fascinating booklet note, Boothby points out that this was  "the most important publication of solo viol music between Ortiz in 1553 and Marais’ first book in 1685. And it represents some of the most virtuosic viol music ever written". Ferrabosco was, unsurprisingly, a notable player himself. He writes with the kind of technique for the left hand that closely resembles the lute, with chord shapes of similar complexity and density. The right hand moves the bow rapidly, creating arpeggiated structures which, given the compactness of the instrument, can be remarkably delicate and the lyra viol was renowned for its emulation of polyphony.

Boothby begins with a Prelude and punctuates the programme with two more, but the rest are pairs, a sequence of Almaine - Coranto and Galliard - Coranto with a single Pavan - Coranto pair to finish. The opening Prelude is stately, with the touched-in lower notes, evoking a multi-voiced work. Generally, the Almaines are quite stately but within this form, Ferrabosco manages to find numerous engaging variations with extensive string crossing that brings out more complexity. The Corantos paired with these are livelier, often a musical parody of the earlier dance. Galliards are faster, and much more the feeling of a dance piece, again with a lively Coranto to follow.

This is wonderfully imaginative music, it is quite amazing how within a rather limited palate, Ferrabosco has produced music of such engaging variety and imagination.

 Music to hear... - Alfonso Ferrabosco: Music for the Lyra Viol
Richard Boothby (lyra viol)
Asako Morikawa (lyra viol)
Recorded in St Mary Magdalen Church, Sherborne, Gloucestershire, 27 June, 11 & 28 July 2020.

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