Audience delights in evocative, danceable music from the age of Shakespeare from Robert Oliver’s consort of viols

Palliser Viols (Lisa Beech, Sophia Acheson, Jane Brown, Andrea Oliver, Robert Oliver)

Antony Holborne: Patiencia (Pavan), The Honie-suckle (Almain), The Fairie Rounde (Coranto)
John Ward: Fantasy à 5
Orlando Gibbons: In Nomine à 4
William Byrd: Fantasy à 4
Tobias Hume: Captain Humes Pavan, Souldiers Galiard
John Jenkins: Fantasy à 5 no.1
William Brade: Paduana, Canzon, Galliard

St. Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday, 2 September 2015, 12.15pm

The name Palliser Viols had not meant anything to me, but it turned out to be a group led by that master of early music, Robert Oliver.

The brief but excellent programme notes confirmed that all the composers were English, and that the reason why William Brade’s music was published in Hamburg was because he spent his career in Denmark and Germany.  Nevertheless, a certain sameness in the music doubtless derives from the composers all being English, flourishing in the days of Queen Elizabeth I, some into the next decades.

This group of players is highly competent, and there was none of the out-of-tune playing one sometimes hears from groups playing these instruments.  One way of overcoming this fault is, of course, to tune the strings frequently, since being made of gut, they go out of tune much more readily than do modern steel strings, and this was done.

To modern ears the music seems very genteel, with neither very loud or very quiet sounds.  However, this certainly does not mean that there is no light and shade – there is plenty, but it is more subtle than modern instruments tend to be. There were charming sounds, immediately evocative of Elizbethan times, people, costumes, and especially dance.  This music should be danced to, or heard over a meal and conversation.

In this concert we heard two treble viols, two tenor and a bass, all six-stringed.  There was a mixture of dances, beginning with a slow Pavan, then to a more lively, danceable Almain followed by an even jollier Coranto, all by Antony Holborne (c.1545-1602).

The next three pieces were instrumental, rather than dances.  John Ward (1590-1638) wrote a rather wistful, even sad Fantasy, that was played very expressively.  The varied harmony and the movement in the bass line gave it character.  The Gibbons piece featured counterpoint and was a plaintive piece with much use of the minor mode, whereas Byrd’s was rather more straightforward, though very pleasing to the ear.

The two Hume pieces were for solo bass viol.  The first, though a Pavan, incorporated fast passages for the player, which decorated the basically slow dance melody.  The second was a much faster dance, putting considerable demands on the player, who had to negotiate the six strings at speed.  This involves pushing the instrument forward when the lowest string is to be played; otherwise the knee might be bowed rather than the string.  There were delightful variations on the melody, and plenty of chords demanding multiple-stopping of the strings, in addition to fast finger-work.

The entire ensemble played the remaining bracket.  (Why do audiences insist on applauding almost every piece, however short, instead of waiting until the end of each of the brackets clearly shown in the printed programme?)  The Jenkins Fantasy involved much interplay of instruments, whereas the first Brade piece was much more smooth and chordal, though with decoration later.

The final Canzon and Galliard were both happy pieces, quite quick.  The Galliard in particular was asking to be danced to.

All the performers were thoroughly able, and created a programme much appreciated by the audience.


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