Palliser Viols and Pepe Becker enjoyed at St Andrew’s lunchtime concert

‘Curious Fancies’; pieces for viols, and viols and voices by Pierre Phalèse, Orlando Gibbons, Alfonso Ferrabosco, Tobias Hume, Thomas Tallis, William Byrd, John Jenkins

Palliser Viols (Lisa Beech, Sophia Acheson, Jane Brown, Andrea Oliver, Robert Oliver), with Pepe Becker (soprano)

St. Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday, 9 December 2015, 12.15pm

I find that I reviewed Palliser Viols at St. Andrew’s as recently as September. However, although some of the composers were the same, the music was not duplicated, and we had this time the addition of a singer, not named in the programme.

This time the programme was not clearly set out, so it was not always easy to tell which piece we were on. The interesting programme notes did not discuss the composers in the order in which we heard them, which was a little confusing. Nevertheless, it was good to have the words of most of the songs printed.

The opening Pavane Lesquercarde and La Roque Gailliard were the only pieces not by English-born or resident composers (Alfonso Ferrabosco coming into the latter category). Phalèse was Flemish, and these dances were from Antwerpener Tanzbuch, published in 1583. They were very pleasing pieces, and although there were one or two flaws in the playing, the ensemble was well-balanced and skilful.

Gibbons’s song The Silver Swan is perhaps his best-known secular song today, and its simple beauty never fails to delight. It followed another of his songs: O that the Learned Poets, whose amusing words included the following, wishing that poets ‘Would not consume good wit in hateful rhyme’.

A Fantasy for four viols by Ferrabosco was followed by further songs by Gibbons, from Hymns and Songs for the Church, published by George Wither in 1623. A straightforward ‘Song III’ had the words ‘Blest be the God of Israel, For he his people bought…’   while the next, ‘Song IIII’ began ‘Now in the Lord my heart doth pleasure take…’ This was very engaging, both melodically and harmonically. As the programme note pointed oiut, the language of these hymns and songs is not highly poetic, but rather ‘deliberately ‘common’ in its expression’.   The third, ‘Song XXXIV’ is titled ‘The Song of Angels. While the words are not used today, the tune is frequently used in churches, with its original number and title, to Charles Wesley’s words ‘Forth in thy name, O Lord, I go’; there are other words set to it, too.

(Pedants like me note that the words said ‘Thus angels sung and thus sing we’, and ‘If angels sung at Jesus’ birth’ whereas we would consider this a misuse, and that the word should be ‘sang’.)

This last song particularly was a demonstration of the skill of Robert Oliver; accompanying these melodies on the bass viol, there is the difficulty of playing the chords on a six-stringed instrument. The instrument came into its own in two pieces by Tobias Hume, from Captain Humes Musicall Humors, of 1605. The first was ‘A Humorous Pavan’. Robert Oliver’s programme note says ‘all puns intended’. The Pavan roamed through different moods, with lots of tricky work for fingers and bow. Specifically, it introduced pizzicato and col legno (hitting the strings with the back of the bow), as instructed by Hume. The four Humors (melancholic, phlegmatic, choleric and sanguine) were traversed, and the piece had humour in the other sense as well.

The other consort members returned for a solemn In Nomine by Thomas Tallis, and a lively Fantasy a 4 by William Byrd.

Two more Gibbons songs followed, the first a setting of a poem by John Donne (though considerable liberties were taken with the text): ‘Ah, dear heart’, which was short and sweet, and ‘What is our Life?’ written by Sir Walter Raleigh as he sat in his condemned cell. The latter was, understandably, mournful. A final song, with mainly bass viol accompaniment was an anonymous ballad to the tune of ‘All in a garden green’, and then Fantasy no.6 by John Jenkins on that tune, employing all the instruments.

The songs all revealed a wonderful marriage of words and music, and the concert was one of delights as well as of Curious Fancies.


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.