14. CD Review: “Come Sorrow” Ensemble Près de votre oreille

Coming to an ear near you (it deserves to), this beautiful recording celebrates the talents of Robert Jones, John Dowland, Alfonso Ferrabosco II, and Tobias Hume. The Ensemble Près de votre oreille (near to your ear) consists of mezzo-soprano, Anaïs Bertrand, bass, Nicolas Brooymans, and lute, Thibaut Roussel, directed by Robin Pharo on bass viola da gamba.

Before we get to the music, let us contemplate the complementary qualities of lute and viol. One of the distinguishing characteristics of the lute is that its sound dies the instant it is born, and it is therefore little wonder the lute spoke so well the language of melancholy. Death is but a single note away…and therefore it needs to renew itself with arpeggios and divisions, constantly bursting into life full of hope, yet instantly dying. By contrast, the viol can hold a note for as long as the performer can stay awake. The viol’s song can emerge softly into life, hold its inward breath before contemplating its next move, or increase its hold with affirmative dynamism. Yet it too can sing of melancholy, sobbing sweetly while the lute darts around, chasing its own shadow. Add a vocal line or two, and this CD will arc from the rising scale of Jones’ Come Sorrow to the falling sighs of Dowland’s Flow My Teares…

Robert Jones (c. 1577 – 1617) was (according to the excellent biographical notes by Jonathan Dunford) the first to print tablature music for the viol, in the Second Booke of Ayres of 1601. There are two vocal parts and two tablatures, a dense one for lute and a simpler one for viol. The title track, Come Sorrow has its own beautiful promotional video:

 

Note the words, “come sweet scayle, by the which we ascend to the heavenly place”, which reveal a nuanced understanding of grief: “Wise griefes have joyful turnings” while “Nice pleasures ende in mournings”.

More Jones songs are sprinkled throughout the recording, and they are all of a high quality. They encounter a sharp contrast in the more lively songs of Scotsman and soldier of fortune, Tobias Hume. Here, the viol parts are virtuosic and programmatical, which both gambist and singer immerse themselves in fully (The Souldiers Song), the lute replacing the voice for A Souldiers Galliard. But Hume was also capable of subtlety, as witnessed in his beautifully-sung, What greater grief. Despite the falling-out between Hume and Dowland, here the former pays tribute to the latter with a brief utterance of the famous Lachrimae motif ( at the 1’43” mark).

There are instrumental interludes, lute with viol or viol solo. Thibaut Roussel‘s lute playing is a joy. Not only does he draw a beautiful tone from his Maurice Ottiger 7-course lute, he has the ability to separate a melody from its accompaniment to a perfectly balanced degree, which many lute players could learn from. For an example, listen to his rendering of the first part of John Dowland’s The Frog Galliard. I hope to hear more from Thibaut on future recordings.

Robin Pharo plays perfectly throughout this whole recording, but we get to hear him play solo gamba, lyra style, in three items in “The first tuning” by Alfonso Ferrabosco II (c. 1575 – 1628). Despite the Italian name, Ferrabosco became one of the most celebrated English composers of the day, writing for various ensembles of viols, including solo. The three pieces presented here are superlatively performed by Robin Pharo, so well, in fact, I feel compelled to urge the performer to record a completely solo lyra-viol album. I can’t think of anyone who does it better. His bass viol was made by Judith Kraft, bow by Claire Berget.

More songs by Jones and Hume lead us inevitably towards one of the most sublime songs of the Renaissance era, John Dowland’s Flow My Teares. The full consort of voices and instruments render a performance – to borrow from the text – “From the highest spire of contentment”, yet sing of darkness and exile. Both Anaïs Bertrand and Nicolas Brooymans save their finest duet performance for this deeply moving meditation on “teares, and sighs and groans”, while viol and lute provide what wearied support they can.

The rest is silence.

Rob MacKillop
Edinburgh
11 August, 2019

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