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A Rich and Expressive Smorgasbord, with LeStrange Viols

LeStrange Viols
Brian Hall
LeStrange Viols

The ensemble LeStrange Viols has dipped into a 16th-century book of expressive ideas and brought to life an album’s worth of gems.  The lush result is called “Aeternum” and WCRB has chosen it as our CD of the Week.

Imagine visiting the British Library in London and making your way to a shelf of music books from the 16th century. There you come across a collection of 135 pieces marked “Additional Manuscript 31390”.  In it, you find such an array of styles and sonorities that you feel transported to cosmopolitan Elizabethan English society. That is just what LeStrange Viols has done, and the result is a delightful exploration of the Elizabethan avant-garde.

It’s not easy to describe the rich, round sound that comes from a group of viol players. The instrument has frets, but is used like a cello – placed between the legs and made to “sing” with a bow. (It’s also known as the viola da gamba.)  As with any great string ensemble, there emerges a kaleidoscopic variety of sound worlds.  Playing viols in groups was a big thing in Elizabethan homes by the end of the 16th century, much like madrigal singing, and that popularity must have stemmed at least in part from the joy of being so closely immersed in so resonant and luxuriant a sound. 

The ensemble LeStrange Viols has turned to a compilation of pieces for this recording that was put together as a “Table Book,” designed to be placed in the middle of a table with the players in a circle around it. The parts are written so that they face the players. It gives the pages of “Additional Manuscript 31390” a strikingly pleasing aesthetic.  

an example of Elizabethan "table book" music, in which the parts are written so that they can be read by musicians sitting around a table
an example of Elizabethan "table book" music, in which the parts are written so that they can be read by musicians sitting around a table

The joy of this new CD called Aeternum is its fantastic variety. As Zoe Weiss says in the liner notes,  “devout motets rub elbows with lovesick chansons and lighthearted madrigals.” There are pieces with amazing rhythmic and harmonic complexity alongside simple, popular tunes. And there are works that can even be categorized as avant garde.

Listen to track 2, Picforth’s fantastic In nomine, an experimental piece with each viol playing just one rhythmic value throughout. LeStrange turns it into a pizzicato (plucked) performance so you can better hear the parts.

William Byrd was an up-and-coming composer at the time, and the ensemble absolutely delights in the gripping dissonances he uses in O salutaris hostia (track 10).

The opening track unveils the viols one by one in English composer William Mundy’s In Aeternum. And the final track by the Italian Giovanni Croce just dances with life and color.  

LeStrange Viols was formed in 2014.  Their name comes from a manuscript collection of consort music assembled by the 17th-century English nobleman Nicholas Lestrange. Their debut recording the following year made the New Yorker’s list of notable recordings.  We know this second recording will make a big splash, too.

Here’s a look at LeStrange Viols in concert:

To purchase this recording, and for more information, visit ArkivMusic.