Ancient meets modern and east meets west in this weird but wonderful project. It has been touring for years—rather like the man who inspired it—but comes out polished and provocative on this double album.
Sir Francis Drake is the inspiration and the piece takes its title from an unreliable but entertaining account by his nephew (also confusingly called Sir Francis Drake) of the great mariner’s circumnavigation of the globe 440 years ago. Extracts from the chronicle are read here, with mellow relish, by Simon Callow.
That, though, is only the starting point. Between the prose, the composer, Orlando Gough, and the intrepid viol consort, Fretwork, have conducted their own musical circumnavigation of the 16th-century world. It’s known that among the 164 men who sailed from Plymouth in Drake’s five ships were four viol players and several other musicians. So half of the music here is the sort of stuff those viols might have played during the epic voyage—not only pavans, hymns and In nomines by Parsons, Taverner and the like, but also Tudor folk songs and dances.
For the other half, however, Gough imaginatively and freely evokes the sort of local music that Drake’s sailors might have heard in South America and Asia. Or rather, he imagines Drake’s viol players returning to England and trying to recreate the sounds they heard, but of course “severely compromised by the choice of instruments”.
At least that’s what he writes in the sleeve notes. What you hear, however, is something far more modern: a dozen or so miniature tone poems that combine world-music elements with textures and harmonies frequently recalling Stravinsky or Bartók—especially when Gough is conjuring up the more violent encounters on the Drake voyage. In one section called The Spanish Main, for instance, he sets up a brutal musical battle between a Spanish fantasia and the metrical English hymn Old Hundredth (representing what he describes as Drake’s “ferocious Protestant Christianity”).
Other passages are gentler. My favourite is probably Berimbau, in which a Brazilian samba is intercut with an English hornpipe. You really feel as if the girl from Ipanema is dancing with Jolly Jack Tar.
Like nearly all Orlando Gough projects, this one treads a fine line between eccentricity and madness, but I loved it. And how exciting to hear viols playing virtuosic new music after being consigned to the museum, literally and metaphorically, for centuries.