This performance of The World Encompassed is an enticing concept, blending world-class viol playing with spoken word, contemporary music and ‘then contemporary’ literature. It is full of musical and spoken material to enlighten – dramatic story-telling, history, the furthering of the contemporary viol, old and new music, exquisite solo and ensemble playing. A primary component is addressing ‘the contemporary viol’. It is, quite frankly, awesome that this old instrument, misjudged by many, and yet so instrumental (excuse the pun) in the history of music, is still being used experimentally today. This is thanks to ensembles and composers such as Fretwork and Orlando Gough, who have been the backbone for this movement for a number of decades, performing works by and collaborating with the likes of David Bowie, Michael Nyman and Sir John Tavener, pushing the instrument's boundaries.


This evening, the viol was the past and the future. Gough’s The World Encompassed is through-composed, and its interweaving of musical narrative and sporadic song make its intention authentic and original. Gough’s piece acknowledges the religio-traditional material performed, with hymns and prayers originally performed by a group of viol players that joined Drake on his circumnavigation of the globe . This particular programme’s narrated excerpts of the contemporary accounts by Drake and co, rendering the early music inserts particularly poignant. The spoken narrative was applied strongly by Paul Copley.

Among the staple viol works, the rendition of Picforth's In Nomine, surrounded by a luscious and stirring pizzicato sound cloud, was sublime. The fugal passages in Taverner’s In Nomine were handled beautifully by the ensemble, with flawless passing of motif from player to player. However the familiar moments of fugal climax and serene song were met by Gough with experimental, avant-garde, often ferocious and sometimes eerie characterisation, and contemporary percussiveness, drawn from the likes of early 20th-century composers such as Stravinsky. At points, The World Encompassed was less ‘Fantasia for Viols’, and more Disney’s Fantasia. There appeared cryptic musical references to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and Firebird. Gough’s use of tonality and rhythm are particularly reminiscent. Stravinsky’s is an excellent bedfellow, but at times the musical narrative felt somewhat held back by the rather severe contrast of the spoken narrative.

The narrative sometimes proved a little heavy for the atmosphere already generated by Gough’s musical setting. With a slightly squeaky chair and an eagerness to rise quickly to deliver the next words, the atmosphere created by the music sometimes felt cut short by a hurried transition. It is safe to say that The World Encompassed stands just fine on its own musical terms. Gough and Fretwork could have departed further from the anchor of the verbal accounts.

The music pushes the viol to its limits, with relentless bowing, use of tremolo, pizzicato and glissando. along with jazzy syncopation. There were moments of repetitive rhythms reminiscent of Steve Reich’s music, enhancing further the futuristic feel to this new viol music, making it contemporary and cinematic.

Without the spoken descriptions, Gough’s music was evocative of the people and regions visited by Drake on his voyage, as well as the prevailing climate. It retains oriental motifs and melodies encapsulated in our perceived structures of Western Renaissance/Baroque music, frequently confined, but then bursting through. Gamelan tones in “Java” were subtle and effective, as if they were taken straight out of an Indonesian dance ceremony, full of plucked pentatonics and wide, flickering of the eyes and extended fingers of the dancers (as are the traditional techniques in Indonesian and Balinese dance).

Though an immense journey, there are a number of specific moments to highlight. “The Execution of Thomas Dally” lament was an especially beautiful moment and special mention must go to Reiko Ichise (tenor viol) for her astonishingly tender and smooth playing in the following solo. The tutti hiss from the players towards the end of one section was particularly dramatic and effective. Gough's interesting use of pizzicato skimmed chords in the bass parts were also executed to exquisite effect. Gough and Fretwork have clearly absorbed every inch of Drake’s narrative in musical form, to perfect translation. An inspirational programme such as this is a challenge to all those who play viol and important groundwork for the future of the instrument.