An imaginative rethinking of music for viol consort

John Holloway Ensemble: Purcell

The Strad Issue: November 2023

Description: An imaginative rethinking of music for viol consort

Musicians: John Holloway, Monika Baer (violins) Renate Steinmann (viola) Martin Zeller (cello)

Works: Purcell: Fantazias

Catalogue number: ECM 4856006

The first Fretwork version of the 12 Fantazias, once on Virgin, now Warner, has long been a dependable companion in tough times. Most of them, within the space of three minutes, transport the listener into a private world of pain and beauty, before issuing a gentle reminder in the coda that the rest of the world gets by with a fragile embroidery of good manners. Dowland may have stamped his name on an English brand of sublime melancholy, but there is no one to rival Purcell in these pieces for sunshine glimpsed through showers, save Monteverdi and Mozart.

To hear Purcell’s suspensions planed of the viol consort’s sustaining power and gentler glow of resonance takes some adjustment. So does listening to them out of their published sequence, but in both cases the experience is instructive and illuminating. Holloway and his colleagues do not play at emulating a consort’s homogeneity of tone – why should they? – while Holloway even colours some of the top-line melodies with dabs of vibrato, never too much. His booklet essay makes a strong case for the Fantazias as early quartet works, as well as illustrating his depth of understanding and love for these pieces no less than his playing. As a quartet, he and his colleagues open out the polyphony and bring a courtly elegance of gesture to those dance-like codas, while the minor-major harmony still blooms like an unseasonal rose in a Swiss radio-studio ambience.