Monday, December 28, 2009

Fretwork - Birds on Fire (Jewish Music for Viols)

Fretwork - Birds on Fire (Jewish Music for Viols)
chamber | Eac, flac, cue | log, cover | 1 CD, 342 MB
May 13, 2008 | Harmonia Mundi| RapidShare

With subtitles such as "Jewish music for viols" and "Jewish musicians at the Tudor court", this new disc from acclaimed viol ensemble Fretwork is bound to pique the interest of listeners who enjoy Tudor-period instrumental music; the idea of Henry VIII and others at the Tudor court bringing Jewish musicians and instrument makers to England from Italy is certainly worth exploring. It turns out that the "Jewishness" of these composers, players, and craftsmen, who had names such as Lupo, Bassano, and Kellim, was not necessarily obvious (Jews had been officially banished from England in 1290 and weren't allowed openly to return until the mid-17th century), and although much of the evidence today for identifying certain individuals and families in the Tudor and Stuart courts as Jewish is "circumstantial", it is nevertheless compelling and convincing, and it's to the credit of Fretwork that they chose to bring this previously lost bit of 16th-century music history into the light (owing largely to the earlier work of scholar Roger Prior).

Of course, the fact that there were Jewish musicians living and working in Tudor England does not mean that they wrote or performed "Jewish" music. The viol consort works we hear on this program reside in the traditional stylistic world of Fantasias, Pavans, and Galliards familiar from other more famous English composers of the period. These sets of pieces--primarily by Thomas Lupo and Augustine and Hieronymus Bassano--show the same sophistication, artful refinement, and aural appeal of the finest works in the genre while for the most part eschewing overt virtuosity.

The disc's title work actually is a recent composition by British composer Orlando Gough. It appears in three sections, each placed at a different point in the program. According to the composer its inspiration came both from a novel (Badenheim 1939, by Aaron Appelfeld) and from two klezmer tunes. I have to say I'm not wild about the interjection of modern works into a program such as this unless there's a discernible, complementary connection between the old and the new. Other than Gough's use of viols it's pretty hard to find such a connection here. While the music is certainly interesting and engaging and worth hearing, it's so different in concept and style--it ranges from jazz (Brubeck's "Take Five"?) and klezmer to tango and swaths of Reich/Adams/Riley minimalism--that the context simply works against it. Even the Jewish music connection--the two klezmer tunes--is questionable because the early viol works have no corresponding associations. Those listeners with differently tuned ears or differently configured experience or expectations will, of course, disagree with me on this.

But no one will disagree regarding the excellent performances or the high quality of the musical selections (for me, the beautiful Fantasia by Phillip van Wilder is a particular highlight), or with the agreeable effect of the intimate, natural-sounding recording. Two songs by Salamone Rossi actually are from Jewish liturgy, and these are sung by Jeremy Avis in an engaging, plaintive style. While there are no major musical discoveries on offer here--works by these composers are often performed and recorded--the point is that we are invited to hear this familiar music in a different historical/contextual relationship while being challenged to rethink our notions of life and custom and societal realities in a place and period we thought we knew well. This is good--and Fretwork is particularly adept at this sort of thing, leaving us to wonder and eagerly await their next project.--David Vernier

CD Content

Orlando Gough - Birds on fire
Salamone Rossi "Ebreo" - Hashkivenu
Anonymous - Pieces from the Lumley part books
Leonora Duarte - Two Sinfonias in 5 parts
Thomas Lupo - Fantasia in 6 parts
Orlando Gough - Birds on fire
Philip van Wilder - Fantasia con pause e senza pause
Thomas Lupo - Pavan in 3 parts N°26
Thomas Lupo - Fantasia in 5 parts N°5
Thomas Lupo - Fantasia in 6 parts N°9
Augustine Bassano - Pavan & Galliard
Hyeronimus Bassano - Fantasia N°1
Joseph Lupo - Pavana a 5
Thomas Lupo - Fantasia in 6 parts N°4 & N°11
Orlando Gough - Birds on fire
Salamone Rossi "Ebreo" - Shir hamma'alot



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