I’ve enjoyed music for the viola da gamba since college, when the viol consort was regularly the least hilarious part of early music concerts. (For the other end of the spectrum, check out the krumhorn — it’s like a kazoo with a geocentric concept of the cosmos, and spawns hilarity even when performed expertly.) Since I don’t currently have the time or opportunity to spend a few hours in the recital hall each week, most of my experience of early music these days is through recordings; here are a couple of recommended releases.
Last summer, I picked up Fretwork’s recording (Amazon link) of the Harmonice Musices Odhecaton, a codex of secular songs published by Petrucci. I was pretty confident that it would be excellent, since I love the Franco-Flemish style and many of the composers represented in the codex in particular. This recording actually surpassed my high expectations on every meaningful dimension: performance, interpretation, and engineering. If you appreciate the works of composers like Josquin, Ockeghem, and Obrecht (or are interested in an unorthodox introduction to this style), then this is an easy buy, even as an undiscounted full-priced release.
A still easier buy is Fretwork’s “English Music for Viols” (Amazon link), which is a budget collection consisting of several reissued releases; my copy arrived earlier this week. Collectors of art music recordings know that “budget” can be applied both as a genuine description and as an ironic twist of marketing. In the case of this set, “budget” is almost an understatement, since this collection spans five discs and lists for $17. The performances are superb and recordings are clear and dynamic.
(If you’re not familiar with the historical styles represented above and are merely interested in some exposure to the viol, I expect that the English consort repertoire will prove less challenging to contemporary ears. Both recordings, however, will reward careful and casual listening alike.)