Notes and Editorial Reviews
How welcome it is to see a French ensemble and record company turning their attention to one of the most important, but still neglected English composers of the 17th century. Born at Maidstone, Kent, in 1592, John Jenkins enjoyed a long life that straddled no fewer than four reigns (those of Elizabeth I, James I, Charles I, and Charles II) in addition to the Commonwealth period, during which—like many other professional musicians—Jenkins took refuge in the countryside, in his instance mainly with two noble Royalist families in Norfolk. Not until the Restoration did Jenkins finally obtain the court post his eminence warranted. Then, at the age of 68, he was granted the post of lutenist in the Private Musick, a select body of musicians whose
task it was to provide chamber music in the private apartments of the monarch. Although age and semi-retirement soon dictated that he was unable to attend court frequently, Jenkins, described by the writer Roger North (a pupil of Jenkins) as “neither conceited nor morose, but much a gentleman” was so highly regarded by his fellow musicians that, according to North, he still “received his salary as they were paid.” His final years were spent at the home of Sir Philip Wodehouse at Kimberley in Norfolk, where he died on October 27, 1678.
While the changes in musical taste and style in England during the 17th century were not as startling as those that took place in France or Italy, they were nevertheless considerable and are reflected in Jenkins’s large corpus of works (there are over 800 surviving instrumental pieces), the majority of which are consort pieces. In the earliest, he maintained the viol consort tradition of Byrd, but later he adopted and developed not only the so-called fantasia suite pioneered by John Coprario, but also responded to the violin’s replacement of the treble viol in the upper parts. It has proved impossible to establish a clear chronology for Jenkins’s works, but the present disc includes a well-varied program that certainly includes pieces in more traditional consort style, in addition to examples embracing modern trends.
Notwithstanding which category they fall into, certain features mark all the composer’s music. Chief among these are an unfailing lyrical graciousness, and ability for melodic expressiveness perhaps unmatched by any English composer before Purcell. Then there is a level of tonal organization and craftsmanship that Jenkins brought even to pieces like Newarke Seidge, composed in a deliberately popular style. Many of his modulations are exquisite (listen, for example, to the first strain of the great Pavan in F, one of Jenkins’s most wondrous conceptions), but they are always arrived at with a clear-eyed sense of logic that eschews the romantic impetuosity of Jenkins’s marginally younger contemporary, William Lawes. To listen to Jenkins after Lawes is indeed to stumble upon the sunlit tranquillity of some Elysian field, to attain peace of mind after experiencing a period of turbulent, disruptive emotion.
Of particular value here are the three magnificent six-part fantasias, multisectional works in which Jenkins achieved a lyrical breadth extending far beyond anything attempted by his predecessors. Almost equally impressive are the two In nomines, where the composer’s contrapuntal skills are fully displayed in treatment of the hallowed old cantus firmus form that is less severe, less rigorous than in many examples. More modern traits are in evidence in the two fantasia suites, one scored for two violins, two viols, and organ continuo, the other for violin, viol, and organ continuo. The latter in particular suggests that Jenkins was well abreast of modern Italian trends, with each of its three movements introducing dazzling division writing for both instruments, here superbly executed by François Fernandez and Jérôme Hantaï.
A comparison with the performances of the Rose Consort of Viols on a Naxos disc (8.550687) reveals predictable differences, the French ensemble adopting a more overtly expressive style that digs further into the notes. The two versions of the F-Major Pavan may be taken as typical, with the English group considerably more reserved, “purer,” and less warmly responsive to the music. Both approaches seem to me valid. It would certainly be a poor soul who failed to respond to the French ensemble’s rich sonority, although it has to be said that the Rose’s wonderful inwardness in the sublime peroration of the final strain is not quite matched by their more extrovert rivals. A more practical reason for the greater purity of style is that in contrast to the Rose Consort, Hantaï’s ensemble substitute violins for treble viols in the upper parts, a course that would not have been envisaged by the composer in the fantasias and In nomines. Neither am I convinced that the addition of a lute is other than superfluous. But ultimately what makes these performances so immensely attractive is the real expressive affection brought to them by the performers, who play every note not only with great technical accomplishment, but, more important, as if they had fallen irrevocably in love with the music. If you’ve yet to make acquaintance with the music of John Jenkins, do, I beg you, take this opportunity. You’re unlikely to get a better one.
Brian Robins, FANFARE
Works on This Recording
Bell Pavane a 6 by John Jenkins
Jérôme Hantaï Ensemble
Fantasia a 6 No. 5 in D minor
In Nomine in G minor: In Nomine in G major
Fantasia-Suite No. 3: I. Fantasia
Fantasia-Suite No. 3: II. Allemande
Fantasia-Suite No. 3: III. Courante
Fantasia a 6 No. 8 in A minor
Fantasia a 6 No. 3 in C minor
Fantasia-Suite No. 1: I. Fantasia
Fantasia-Suite No. 1: II. Air
Fantasia-Suite No. 1: III. Courante
In Nomine No. 2 in E minor
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