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Originally released on Avie in 2007, this admirable recording of the Jenkins' five-part consorts presents, according to The Times, 'music of piquant melodies, alarming harmonies and shifting metres that grow more potent with each hearing', which 'couldn’t have better advocates than the viol group Phantasm'.
Much of this turbulence results from Jenkins’s obsession with displaced accents, themes and points of imitation which he sets against the prevailing beat. While the fantasies are driven by a strong pulse (or tactus), scattered throughout the five-part collection are some of the most astonishing accentual displacements occurring in English consort music. Unlike in the pavans, it is often impossible to predict which beats will be strong, and which weak. Of course musical metre is invariably hierarchical, and reflects, in part, how our body submits to, and tries to defy gravity. So when Jenkins plays malicious games with harmonic rhythm or plants false cues about the prevailing pulse—as in Fantasies 14 and 16 (tracks 12 and 11)—he casts us into a topsy-turvy universe, one in which we’ve lost the most primal knowledge, the ability to know ‘up’ from ‘down’. But how pleasurable it is to be free of gravitational forces, especially when the composer is kind enough—eventually—to help us regain our footing! In a certain sense, of course, the fantasy had always avoided regular accentuation and predictable phrase lengths, which were rather the keystones of dance music and ground basses. And even the relative freedom of the Elizabethan and Jacobean In nomine relied on predictable changes of harmony restricted by moves of the cantus firmus on strong beats, which is why exceptional pieces, such as the ‘second’ In nomine by Alfonso Ferrabosco I () or Orlando Gibbons ( ) creates such an impact.
The most riotous rhythmic dislocations in the Five–Part Consorts occur in Fantasy 15 (track 9), which opens with a country fiddle tune, no less, a theme least likely to be metrically displaced. With its four regular beats, the head melody might have been drawn from one of Playford’s dance collections. In fact, if it weren’t for the pervasive imitation and the augmentations of the subject, we might even imagine a band of toe-tapping fiddlers improvising on the tune for a jolly contredanse. One discovers by the middle of the Fantasy, however, that Jenkins is up to no good, when, after a lyrical interlude, he trips us up with a new figure played against the pulse. Just try counting ‘in two’ (beginning at 1:18) and you’ll see what I mean. Despite moments of stability, the composer persuades everyone (at 2:12) that we were mistaken about the pulse. Mistaken, that is, until he thumbs his nose at us (at 2:19) and shifts accented notes back onto the right beat. This is music that wreaks the purest havoc, and has the greatest fun doing so. Playing such music, as we’ve done, without bar lines is a treacherous business and not for the fainthearted. Arriving together ‘in one piece’ at the final cadence, we commonly break into giddy laughter.
Like many artists working within an established tradition—Byrd’s first consort masterpieces date from the 1560s—Jenkins arrives at some of his most touching insights in the briefest moments. Consider, for example, a passage of a few seconds’ duration in Fantasy 13 (track 8), a morose work in D minor plagued with indecision. Its first section features two uncomfortably similar themes, a ‘high’ one with a jarring raised 6th scale degree (B natural), and a ‘low’ one containing the more conventional lower 6th scale degree (B flat). As neither theme dominates, the music wanders distractedly in a state of perpetual distress. The second half of the Fantasy is devoted to a new subject (first heard at 1:56) which, however, dissipates little of the accumulated melancholy; as in the previous section, Jenkins shuttles between two versions of a subject, the first an archaic formula drawn from vocal polyphony, the second ‘deformed’ by a painful diminished fourth. A modulation to the relative major occurs only once in the Fantasy (at 1:49), but, far from offering a desired panacea in F major, the composer crafts a progression of richly voiced major chords in quick succession which entice us with a mirage of pleasing colours set against an indifferent darkness. Poised between two images of gloom, the interjection, like a flash of lightning, illuminates a dismal landscape. It is a transient moment, but one suffused with supreme beauty.
Jenkins’s harmonic explorations are another wonder of this collection and are achieved by the smoothest modulations imaginable. Fantasy 4 (track 18) escorts you into a murky labyrinth within which the remotest tonal regions are surveyed: you recognize the strangeness of the terrain—since the same or similar theme is maintained throughout the piece—but haven’t a clue how you’ve been transported over such a distance. Once the furthermost destination (in B flat minor) has been reached, you are granted (at 2:26) a moment of pathos, a poignant duet of falling thirds answered by an equally sympathetic duet of sixths. From here it is only a matter of time before one emerges (at 3:11) into the safety of familiar surroundings. This extraordinary harmonic trajectory is marked by a substantial freedom of movement, against which the so-called classical tonal system, with its restriction of scale degrees and obsession with diatonic hierarchies, seems repressive by comparison. The indulging of compositional fantasy is, from a purely harmonic point of view, a lot harder work for the likes of Haydn and Beethoven, say, than for a relentless explorer like Jenkins who has learnt to transpose himself and his listeners to exotic locations without standing in wearying queues or undergoing tiresome security checks.
Much as the Five-Part Consorts promote incessant activity, Jenkins also toys with dreams and sleep in striking ways. In Fantasy 3 (track 13), for example, he invents a new use for the venerable technique of augmentation, that is, when a subject is played against itself at half the speed. Reserved for grave pronouncements, augmentations typically assert the truth, much like a cantus firmus. In place of Gregorian gravitas, however, Jenkins evokes (at 2:14) a curious nostalgia for his subject and, exhausted by the frenetic activity, a drowsy tactus—twice as slow—lulls us into a satisfying rest. Sleep also beckons in the final section of Pavan 1 (track 15). Offered the prospect of a soft featherbed in G major (at 4:11), we’re not permitted to close our eyes quite yet. Instead, a seemingly trivial dotted figure is detached from the cadence, and—as if in dreamy freefall—sings a heart-stopping sequence of descending sighs cushioned upon unexpectedly lush harmonies. Only thereafter does a sweet soprano duo invite us into a somnolent realm where slumber awaits.
Let me come straight out with it. Jenkins is a marvel.
Laurence Dreyfus © 2016