Paolo Pandolfo / Robert Smith

The Excellency of Hand: English Viola da Gamba Duos

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This little release explores a rather obscure corner of the viola da gamba repertory: the English duet for viols. This music deserves to be better known, and the recording's commercial success upon its release in 2017 is noteworthy. Most of the music comes from two composers, John Jenkins and Christopher Simpson, who are known for viol ensemble music, if at all; there are also a few airs for two viols by the even more obscure Simon Ives. The duos do not resemble the bicinia of continental music, which are little counterpoint exercises, nor the inward world of French viol music, nor even the duo fantasias of Gibbons. Instead they are of two types, both highly listenable: the "divisions," or sets of short variations by Jenkins (with a few by Simpson), and preludes by Simpson. The divisions, which were originally an improvisatory form at least in part, were designated as being for "learners," but in fact they often display a high level of virtuosity, with one of the viols playing a dominant role. Sample the Air with Divisions in C major, VdGS 11, for a convincing piece of virtuoso viol music that is consistently inventive. The preludes are more adventurous harmonically and put the viols in a more equal role, but they differ considerably in mood and texture. The performances by Robert Smith and Paolo Pandolfo are equal to the considerable demands of the music, but the overly resonant church sound is wrong for this intimate style. Still, it's no wonder that buyers are taking pleasure in discovering these obscure treasures.

Track Listing

Sample Title/Composer Performer Time
1 6:29
2 0:18
3 4:19
4 1:00
5 5:47
6 4:56
7 2:50
8 0:16
9 3:07
10 5:55
11 5:19
12 1:24
13 4:07
14 1:01
15 4:02
16 2:46
17 0:59
18 3:52
19 5:48
20 3:21
21 0:35
22 5:26
blue highlight denotes track pick