John Jenkins: Five-Part Consorts


Finalist for Gramophone Award in Early Music (August 2007)
Finalist for MIDEM Classical Award in Early Music 2008
reissued 2015 as LINN BKD 490


Recording Date: 14 – 17 August 2007
Recording Location: Chapel of Magdalen College, Oxford
Recording Producer: Jonathan Freeman-Attwood
Recording Engineer: Simon Fox-Gál
Post-Production: Jonathan Freeman-Attwood and Laurence Dreyfus
Executive Producer for Avie:
Simon Foster

Previously released on Avie Records 2007


Phantasm’s performances of the 6-part viol consorts of John Jenkins (1592-1678) were the subject of a feature review and interview with director Laurence Dreyfus in Fanfare 30:2. At the end of the review, I noted with satisfaction that Phantasm was about to record the companion 5-part consorts. Well, here they are after only a relatively short time. In his note with the new disc – a characteristic combination of enlightened scholarship and overflowing enthusiasm – Dreyfus suggests that even more than the 4- and 6-part works, the 5-part consorts find Jenkins at the height of his compositional powers. He cites particularly the way in which Jenkins teases both player and listener with his obsession with displaced accents set against the prevailing beat, the most extreme example being Fantasy 15. Here Jenkins starts with an extrovert folk-dance – Dreyfus calls it a country fiddle tune – that develops into a near-anarchic riot of subversive rhythmic chaos. Jenkins is frequently described as a conservative composer, but there is absolutely nothing conservative about this music.
As with the 6-part fantasies, their counterparts here are all through-composed, but generally pass through several clearly defined sections, the mood of the opening frequently returning for the final episode. Just occasionally, a single mood will prevail throughout. This occurs in shorter, major mode pieces such as No. 1 or No. 16, the latter thrusting ever forward with a playful exuberance where one senses the composer delighting in the contrapuntal interplay between the instruments. Neither are Jenkins’s surprises restricted to rhythm. No. 9, for example, opens with one of the composer’s favorite three-note mottos before three times introducing a striking modulation we expect to lead us to slower moving music. Only on the third occasion is this finally achieved, with a commensurate move to a more serious vein. For sheer variety of mood, Fantasia 7, the longest, is exceptional. It opens with slow moving, dark-hued music that reminds us of Jenkins’s love of rich sonorities, its development gradually entering brighter territory and seemingly expanding naturally like an unfurling flower. Then comes a passage of imitative polyphony, in itself contrasted with a sustained homophonic passage of great harmonic beauty. Finally, a lively galliard-like passage leads to a few bars return of the opening mood. All this has been achieved in a fraction over four minutes.
Not all is as immediately compelling. At times one senses the mastery of counterpoint, deployed over a relatively small gamut, takes precedence over melodic interest. This can sometimes leave the listener flailing for an aural lifejacket, something to grasp, as I found with Fantasy 12. But for relief at such times we can always turn to the three pavans, which like their 6-part relatives introduce us to a calmer, less contrapuntal world in which expressivity takes precedence, one that often probes the vein of melancholy never far from the surface in 17th-century English music.
As with the earlier recording, Dreyfus has chosen to omit the organ part, a possibly controversial decision for which he put up a strongly argued case in the interview; I can only say that it does not worry me any more than it did with the previous disc. Otherwise there is nothing controversial about performances that are executed with such technical skill, such spontaneity, the sense of responding to each moment in the music’s course that is such a feature of all Phantasm’s performances. Here one need only listen to the calm luminescence achieved in the opening of Fantasia 17, or the thrusting sturdiness of Fantasia 3 to be aware that they are truly masters of all they survey. The sound is of the best kind: so natural and unobtrusive that you don’t even think about it. At present there is no competition for the complete 5-part consorts, so the disc is self- recommending. Those who would like to try a different approach, or would prefer a cross-section of Jenkins’s consort works are reminded of the discs of Fretwork (not reviewed), or the Ensemble Jérôme Hanaï (28:5). But no real enthusiast will pass on this.

Brian Robins, Jun 2007 - published in Fanfare

Laurence Dreyfus, the founder of the viol consort Phantasm, sees John Jenkins (1592-1678) as a relentless explorer, a man daring to venture into harmonic territory that would remain largely unexplored for centuries. He has learnt, says Dreyfus, "to transpose himself and his listeners to exotic locations without standing in wearying queues or undergoing tiresome security checks". Dreyfus's sleevenote provides an insider's colourful view of Jenkins's excursions, some of which are daring enough to take the floor from under your feet, musically speaking. The best way to know this music is to play it. Phantasm's lucidly balanced, cogently demonstrative performances have an intimacy that easily outclasses most public concert experiences of this complex yet ravishing music.

Michael Dervan, Apr 2007 - published in The Irish Times

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