The Excellency of Hand: Duos by Simpson, Jenkins, S Ives

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COMPOSERS: Jenkins,S Ives,Simpson
LABELS: Resonus
ALBUM TITLE: The Excellency of Hand
WORKS: Duos by Simpson, Jenkins, S Ives
PERFORMER: Paolo Pandolfo, Robert Smith (viola da gamba)


For the uninitiated, an entire disc of English music for two bass viols might not seem to be an altogether appealing proposition. Yet gamba demons Paolo Pandolfo and Robert Smith (early music’s Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid) have concocted an intoxicating brew of pieces that would surely convert the most hardened sceptic.

The English viol reached its heyday in the mid-17th century, when theatres and opera houses were closed and music in church was prohibited. So, to while away the long, dark evenings, many people  ‘chose to fiddle at home’– as contemporary chronicler Roger North put it. In response to this viol mania came a flood of new works, including these duos by Simon Ives (1600-62), John Jenkins (1592-1678) and Christopher Simpson (1606-69) – composers who inexhaustibly explore the instrument’s subtle yet variegated colours, tunings and textures. There are hypnotic and virtuoso ‘divisions’ (intricate elaborations over a repeated bass pattern), free-flowing preludes, melodious airs, some with a naïve, folk-like quality, others in the ‘lyra-style’, exploiting chordal playing and unusual tunings.

One-time pupil and maestro at the Schola Cantorum in Basel, Smith and Pandolfo enjoy a terrific rapport, sharing an acute sensitivity to balance, ensemble, phrasing and nuance. Hearing them is like listening to an exquisitely choreographed pas de deux, one moment graceful and balletic, the next robust and athletic. Their supple ornamentation, informed by evidence in primary sources, is also most effective.

The two viols are finely balanced in the recording, and the open sound enhances the ethereal quality of these delicate, gut-strung instruments.


Kate Bolton-Porciatti