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GRAMOPHONE (07/2022)
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Reviewer :
Mark Seow

An intriguing detail in the booklet note tells us that Thomas Lupo (1571-1627) was paid 40 marks in 1621 to compose for an ensemble comprising 13 string players. That makes him, according to violist and note-writer Richard Boothby, composer for ‘the world’s first orchestra’. While none of this so-called orchestral music has survived, what we do have is splendid: viol consort music in a variety of parts and moods.

The playing, as you would expect from Fretwork, is extremely fine. A generosity of sound colours many of the tracks. Take Fantasia No 29 in five parts, VdGS25: the plucky attack of the fugal theme is windblown to the textural surface, buoyed by an aerated push of resonance. At moments it sounds as if there could be an accordion or chamber organ hidden in the thicket of viols, such is the glowing sonic core. This sonority recurs in Fantasia No 15 in three parts, VdGS26.

The sound is enveloping: not only do the contrapuntal lines seem to care for one another, caressing and plying their neighbours with balm, but they seem to care for us, their listeners. The effect, even when the Fantasia quickens into liveliness, is entirely calming.

But where this album really gets going is the final five fantasias. Fantasia No 8 in three parts, VdGS10, flickers with energy. The viols nudge at each other in varying degrees of contention and the counterpoint is not so much resolved as stretched to its elastic limits in the fantasia’s final seconds. My favourite movement, however, is Fantasia No 10 in six parts, VdGS10, in which a chugging stirs at the centre of the texture – it’s merely an itch at first but soon gathers voices and grows in scratchy rowdiness, only then to give way to the treble viols in angelic concord. These fantasias by Lupo are a fine discovery indeed; brought to such life as they are here by Fretwork, it’s a puzzle how they are not better known.

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