Kings Place, 12 February 2016
JS Bach Piece d’Orgue, Contrapunctus 7, Passacaglia; Purcell: Chaconny; Charpentier: Concert pour les violes; Marini Passacalio; Legrenzi Sonata Sesta, Sonata Quinta; Forqueray: Pieces a trois violes; Handel: Passacaille.
The viol consort repertoire took a long time to lie down and die. From its prime in the early years of the 17th century, its decline took different forms in different countries. Most countries retained the bass viol as a continuo instrument, with France (and, to a certain extent, Germany) developing a repertoire for solo bass viol. Italy had long since concentrated on the violin rather than the viol family. In England it was Purcell who briefly rescued the viol consort from its death throes with his remarkable late-flowering Fantasias c1680. But there were also other late-flowerings in France and Italy from the likes of Charpentier, Forqueray and Legrenzi.
In their Kings Place concert, the viol consort Fretwork explored some of these late examples of viol consort music in their programme ‘Passacaille’, the concert title giving a clue as to the nature of several of the pieces. They also ‘borrowed’ the music of Bach and Handel to add another theme their programme. They opened with Bach and a transcription of the central part of his Pièce d’Orgue (Fantasia in G minor: BWV572). Clearly intended to be played on a very grand full organ sound in five parts (in contrast to the filigree passage work of the two omitted surrounding sections), Fretwork completely transformed the extract into a melancholic and meditative piece with phrases clearly indicated by oozing volume in and out, occasional contrapuntal lines being emphasised and a non-too subtle amendment to the final cadence that omitted Bach’s instructions to play the final chord short – a direction that most organists ignore.
Playing this piece on a viol consort gives the opportunity to surf over one of the great puzzles about his piece – why Bach wrote a pedal note (the B below bottom C) that no German organ of his time could play. When writing this French-inspired work, did he really know enough about French organs to know that some of them would have included this note in the grand ravallement? Or are the many theories about the numerological and theology inspiration for this piece believable – one being that the piece reflects the Trinity, with the middle movement representing The Son, who went to a place that no human could ever experience – hence including a note that no organists can play.
The programme also included the seventh Contrapunctus from Bach’s Art of Fugue, the contrapuntal complexity exposed by the very nature of the sound of the viol, here sharing the four voices between five viols before a fifth voice appears at the end. They finished with Bach’s organ Passacaglia (BWV582) played with its accompanying fugue (which is, arguably, part of the passacaglia in any case). I liked the use of plucked strings for the arpeggio section. I think all organists should listen to organ works played by instrumental groups, with the viol and recorder consorts being the most instructive. Although us poor organists can only marvel at the expressive capabilities of these instruments, it is always useful to have that expression at the back of ones mind when performing on the less expressive (but not entirely absent) mechanics of the organ.
Purcell’s Magnificat Chaconny in G minor pushes the boundaries of the chaconne (and related passacaille) form to its limits and sounded magnificent played on viols rather than violins. Charpentier’s contribution to the late viol consort repertoire came with his Concert pour les violes, like Purcell seemingly as much in homage to past glory as pushing new boundaries. It concludes with an exquisite Passecaille, the harmonic clashes and the complex bass line adding to the inner tension. Another French contribution came with Forqueray’s Pieces a trois violes, a curious set of three pieces that appear to be from a larger suite for three bass viols written well into the 18th century many years after the treble-to-bass viol consort had long since been buried to await its resurrection in the mid-20th century.
In Italy, 167o was considered very late for viol consort music, but Legrenzi’s two Sonatas demonstrated an understanding of the genre, with the almost unique capability of the viol to express extremes of dissonance and tonal colour. They were contrasted with an earlier Italian example, the Passacalio by Biagio Marini, with some fascinating rhythms and harmonies, with more than a nod towards early Italian opera.
Fretwork celebrate their 30th anniversary this year, and this was an excellent start to the year. One of many groups of that vintage that reinvent themselves as time goes by, they retain their ability to come up with interesting, if sometimes quirky, programmes. Their playing was, of course, excellent, with a wonderful attention to producing a consort sound, with no one instrument dominating. The return to Kings Place on 24 June for their anniversary concert: with friends.