march 2012

Fretwork (from left): Susanna Pell, Richard Boothby, Reiko Ichise, Richard Tunnicliffe, and Asako Morikawa. Seated: former member Richard Campbell, who passed away in March 2011. (Photo: Chris Dawes)

Pressing On

Fretwork viol consort triumphs at Carnegie Hall following a tumultuous 25th anniversary year that saw a founding member die by his own hand and another long standing cohort take her leave. The future beckons.

Entering its 25th anniversary season last year the English viol consort Fretwork had much to celebrate. Along with two-dozen recordings of Renaissance and Baroque music, the group had worked with contemporary composers such as Tan Dun, Michael Nyman and George Benjamin; collaborated with pop artists like Elvis Costello and Robbie Williams; and was frequently featured in films--among them, Jim Jarmusch's Coffee and Cigarettes and Broken Flowers. In the larger world of music it had accomplished the laudable feat of elevating an esoteric, 15th-century bowed instrument -- the viol -- to a position higher in the public's consciousness than could ever be imagined.

But a quarter century of uninterrupted achievement seemed insignificant when, in March 2011, group co-founder Richard Campbell took his own life at 55, succumbing to depression he had been fighting for years. Three months later, Susanna Pell, a member for 23 years, left the ensemble. Liam Byrne, a viol player and musicologist with an active freelance career in London, succeeded her. but the events left the members shaken and fearful that their well-honed chemistry could not easily be recaptured. Yet they decided to press on as a quintet, at least for the time being.

"This last year has been obviously a very turbulent one for us," Richard Boothby, the group's bass viol player and arranger, told WQXR-AM, New York City's classical music station. "There's been a lot of change and with consort music that's quite difficult. The way in which you play together can be easily upset." He added: "It's taken all year to reestablish equilibrium. But I think we've found it now."

Fretwork performs William Lawes Fantazy in C major for 5 viols on WQXR-AM's Café Concert

Indeed. Fretwork's long-awaited debut at Carnegie Hall's Weill Recital Hall on February 20, with a program that Campbell was working on before his death called "Musick's Monument" (a selection of airs, fantasias and madrigals inspired by 17th-century musician Thomas Mace's 1676 like-titled book on the music scene) generated glowing reviews. Writing in the New York Times, Allan Kozinn observed: "Keeping to Mace's favored composers made for a quirky set list. You might expect a program of late English Renaissance works to include pieces by Dowland and Byrd, for example, both among Fretwork's longtime specialties. But Mace apparently did not rate them highly enough to discuss them. But he was fond of William Lawes, who was represented by a pair of appealingly varied Consort Sets, and John Jenkins, who was represented by a group of tuneful, richly harmonized dances.

"Several of the works drew on the dark, melancholy spirit that dominated so much late Tudor music. The ensemble's beautifully balanced, carefully nuanced readings of John Coprario's 'Illicita Cosa' Fantasia and Thomas Lupo's 'Pavan in Three Parts' captured that sensibility deftly."

Fretwork, 'Pavan Lachrimae Antiquae' by John Dowland, from the 1999 album Dowland and Byrd: Goe Nightly Cares

On a pragmatic level, the Carnegie program contained works in three, four and five parts but the ensemble has been forced to put aside its six-part viol pieces for now. (Unlike a string quartet, viol consorts come in varying sizes.) Among the works shelved is a new arrangement of Bach's Goldberg Variations, which was recorded for Harmonia Mundi in 2011. "That's been a bit difficult because we would have wanted to play the Goldbergs in Carnegie," noted Boothby, "but with five it would have been another rearrangement and we decided to do this more core repertory."

Whatever Fretwork's long-term plans bring, Boothby said the ensemble will continue with its efforts to expand the repertory for viols, which now includes some 40 commissioned pieces. In October at London's Wigmore Hall, it will premiere a new piece by the young New York composer Nico Muhly, written jointly for Fretwork and the Hilliard Ensemble.

The Carnegie Hall performance, Boothby added, was a tribute to Campbell. "Had he been alive he would have been here so it's got poignant memories for us," he said.

Fretwork's 2011 album, Bach: Goldberg Variations (arranged for viols) is available at

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