To see Fretwork perform live is to understand the difference between virtuosos playing together for the first time, and virtuosos playing together who know how their colleagues take their coffee. The ensemble’s great achievement has been to reintroduce the world to the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century repertoire of polyphony for viols, and it is also known internationally for expanding the repertoire with new commissions. The viol has a transparent, subtle sound, which finds more expression in articulation than in volume, but Fretwork shows how dramatic this intimate repertoire can be.

Fretwork, © 2009 Chris Dawes
Fretwork,
© 2009 Chris Dawes

The program at Weill Recital Hall showcased the core of the viol consort repertoire, with gems from some of the master composers of the period: William Lawes, John Coprario and Monteverdi among them. The concert opened and closed with consort sets by Lawes, the first in F major and the last in C, each in a three-part form of Fantazy, Pavin, and Aire. Lawes’ music leaps out for its rich, full textures, and, to my ears, inklings of the mercurial brilliance and inventiveness characteristic of Haydn. Fretwork clearly enjoyed the playful independence of the lines, which either tumbled forth in joyful busyness or swelled together as one. In a suite of Airs by John Jenkins, another master consort composer, the players were again sensitive to changes in color and texture, switching from full-throated lyricism to sharp, Bartók-like precision in the dancier sections.

Coprario’s Fantasia for Five Viols, “Illicita cosa,” might have been a prototype for Mozart’s “Dissonance” quartet, with its alarming harmonies and leaning suspensions. The unexpected ending left audience members uncertain whether to applaud.

The group’s performance of the Monteverdi madrigal “Dolcemente dormiva la mia Clori,” originally for five vocalists, was so true to the inflections of Italian speech that a listener could follow along to the text printed in the program. This piece was paired with John Ward’s In Nomine, an example of a popular form of consort music inspired by John Taverner’s Missa Gloria Tibi Trinitas. In this form, one voice, in this case the second treble, plays the chant line from the mass setting while the four others build an intricate web around it.

The hexachord – or the first six notes of a scale – lies at the heart of another form of music important to the viol consort repertoire. Fretwork chose Alfonso Ferrabosco’s Hexachord Fantasy in Four Parts to illustrate this style, with one treble viol repeating the ascending scale of six notes for half of the piece, and relaxing to a close with the descending scale. The treble viol player either held her own or assumed the character of the voices spinning counterpoint around her.

The concert program drew from the composers mentioned in a 1676 book of musical commentary published by one Thomas Mace, who expressed nostalgia for the “sublime discourses” of earlier consort music and suspicion for the coming flamboyance of the Baroque era. Fretwork nonetheless gave in to this “modernity” with a touching encore by Henry Purcell (or so it sounded). Richard Campbell, a founding member of Fretwork who had originally dreamed up the program, died last March. His colleagues – Liam Byrne, Asako Morikawa, Reiko Ichise, Richard Tunnicliffe, and Richard Boothby – dedicated the program to him.