John Jenkins: yet another seventeenth century English composer who deserves to be more widely known. This delightful CD from The Consort of Musicke directed by Trevor Jones is no dutiful study of a hidden but rather uninspiring corner of English early Baroque consort music; rather, a mosaic – rich in color and shape, carefully crafted and full of surprises. Listen, for instance, to the unpretentious, jaunty and appropriately figurative progress through the Saraband (52, tr.6) and the restrained melancholy of the Fancy-Air (4, tr.7). Jenkins' counterpoint is well-wrought, his instrumental palette fresh and crisp and his melodies catchy without being fey or superficial in any way. He is in excellent hands with the Consort of Musicke… eight string players of the caliber of Monica Huggett and Alison Crum violins; Alan Wilson organ and Anthony Rooley theorbo. If fresh, beautiful, expertly-played English consort music appeals to you, don't hesitate to get this gem of a CD – actually a reissue of a Decca CD from 1984: it's unreservedly recommended.
John Jenkins was born in 1592 (four years after the Spanish Armada) and lived almost until the end of the reign of Charles II, dying in 1678. He showed early promise as a lutanist and viola-player and is likely to have served in various aristocratic households – and at the Restoration court from 1660, when he was already in his seventies. During his lifetime he was considered the composer of viol music. Never an innovator, he preferred to draw and build on the work of other musicians, some of whom did plough new furrows.
Coprario, for example, clearly influenced Jenkins' composition of the suites we hear here. Although the latter looked backwards (or maybe glanced to his side) by making the upper parts suitable for the violin or viol whereas Coprario was already expecting them to be played on the violin. Similarly, the In Nomine had its origins a hundred years earlier when composers elaborated a cantus firmus from Taverner's Gloria Tibi Trinitas mass; by Jenkins' time the fashion was all but moribund if not dormant. Jenkins, though, writes an elegant, beautiful and profound work, which is perhaps the CD's high-point. It's the best of, indeed very typical of, Jenkins… somber and dignified without dragging, thoughtful without so much as a touch of indulgence.
By no means all melancholy, there is a sureness and simple strength in this neglected music. When combined with an equally crystalline tenderness of arrangement and beauty of melody it creates, frankly, the most heavenly sound. It also possesses profundity and transparency, the sort only genius and near genius is self-effacing enough to trust to the innocent ear. And these qualities are perfectly conveyed on this representative recording. It contains fifteen Suites, Fantasias, dance movements and the aforementioned In Nomine which will both whet the appetite (for other similar recordings, perhaps – by Phantasm on Avie 2099; The Locke Consort on Channel Classics 17698, The Apollo Consort on Somm 217 or even the Jérôme Hantaï Ensemble on Naïve 8895). It will also simply satisfy for its own sake.
The viol consort arrangements and Fantasias have a conversational, almost chatty, feel. A good example of this is the polyphonic Fantasia (12, tr.10). But this is no stylistic trick: out of the 'dialog' almost always emerges a substantial modulating theme which lends immense satisfaction to the development. The members of the Consort of Musicke articulate this structure with aplomb and energy.
The remarkable thing about these pieces, perhaps, is how different they all are and how fresh and new the sound conveyed by The Consort of Musicke without effects or over-dramatization. Although these are recordings made over 20 years ago, the sound is contemporary and eminently satisfying. You will, though, have to forage in the rather dense liner notes to get proper descriptions of the pieces and who is playing what. That's well worth the effort, though. This CD is a real find. Well done Explore Records!
Copyright © 2007, Mark Sealey