Many of us, speaker buds in ears, travel with music these days, and it seems that when Francis Drake embarked on his epic three-year circumnavigation of the globe in 1577, he also took his music with him. His small fleet came with a complement of trumpets and drums, as well as a consort of viols to provide music both martial and soothing for the morale of the crew, his own pleasure, and to impress and entertain not only the indigenous populations he was to meet, but also the occasional captured Spanish captains and crew.
In 2010, Fretwork conceived The World Encompassed, a concert of readings (from the eponymous account of the voyage published by Drake’s nephew), interspersed with viol music – by Parsons, Taverner and others – with which Drake would have been familiar, metrical Protestant psalms of the time (such as The Old 100th), contemporaneous sea-shanties, and programme music for viols that was suggestive of the many exotic places that the voyage visited. The latter – a suite of 11 pieces – was commissioned from the contemporary British composer, Orlando Gough.
Friday evening’s performance of the concert at the Wigmore demonstrated the cleverness of the choices and the brilliance of Gough’s music. Simon Callow, in his usual mellifluous tones, imbued the readings with a sense of both the dramatic and the humorous, and the metrical psalms (sung with gusto by the members of Fretwork as they played) provided a homespun counterpoint, bringing to mind not only the unpolished enthusiasm of the crew, but also the Protestant colonisation of north America by future generations out of Plymouth.
The Renaissance items were given the flawless accounts that one expects from Fretwork – meditative In nomines by Taverner, White and Picforth, as well as Alberti’s graceful ‘Pavin’, Parsons’ complex ‘De la Court’, and the martial ‘The Song Called Trumpets’ (signalling both departure and arrival at Plymouth).
Gough’s music, however, brought a whole new dimension to the evening. He clearly understands the capabilities of the instruments and revels in the possibilities of them beyond the constraints of their traditional repertoire, and his pieces were full of rhythmic bumps from the bass viols, mosquito squeaks (in ‘Mogador’) from the trebles, plucking, and clicking the strings against the fingerboards (in ‘Port Desire’). Fretwork – who are no strangers to contemporary works, and regularly commission them – had clearly taken ownership of the pieces, and gave them inspired performances.
Gough’s style might best be described as ‘richly augmented modernism’; he is fond of giving each line a repeated rhythmic pattern, and allowing complex rhythms to build by adding instruments one at a time; an obvious parallel is gamelan music, and, indeed, as expected, ‘Java’ played well on this trope. But there were many variations from this technique, and each of the short pieces was a shrewdly judged summoning of genius loci: the tremolando underscoring angular, hesitant little tunes for ‘Terra incognita’; a plucked Samba for ‘Port Desire’; the incorporation of 16th-century material (including some charming modern versions of false relations) in ‘Leaving Plymouth’ and ‘The Spanish Main’; some strummed almost-guitar-like effects for ‘Albion’ (the fleet’s arrival in what would become California); and the delicious riff on Portuguese Fado that formed part of ‘Maio Santiago Fogo’. Essentially, it was film music, but of a very high calibre, and perfectly capable of standing its ground in a concert, as well as blending seamlessly with music 500 years its senior.