SIMPSON The Four Seasons
Christopher Simpson’s The Four Seasons is an unusual thing. Each season lasts about 15-20 minutes and consists of a Fancy (Fantasy), an Ayre and a Galliard liberally laced with the kind of running ornamentation for which the composer of The Division-Violist is best remembered. They are scored for one treble instrument, two bass viols and continuo, and are as rich, robust and English as a Cox’s orange pippin. How they connect with their supposed subject is harder to sense; Simpson left us no clues, and it could well be that these are the kind of ‘descriptive’ pieces in which the players are left to supply the appropriate mood out of their own free imaginations.
Sirius Viols have no problem with that – a glance at Hille Perl’s idiosyncratic booklet-notes is proof – and so there is no time in this recording when you feel they are just playing the notes and hoping something will come of them. Instead they give this long-limbed music a coursing ebb and flow that never flattens, and a sense of purely musical drama that holds the listener in thrall. What is more, their sound is gorgeous: if you ever thought that three viols could only sound weedy, or that music for them could only noodle along in the background, here is concrete evidence to the contrary. In Sirius’s hands it compels attention.
Though I have heard a violin play the top part, it is played here by a treble viol, with each of the three Sirius players having a different season to try it out. If the differences between them are slight ones, more noticeable is the way the continuo colourings change as the cycle goes on, giving subtle shape to the year (the jangly sound of cittern and bandora tremoloing in Spring is certainly a new one to me). Frankly, this beautiful disc is as inspiriting as a woodland walk in autumn.