Fretwork, Wigmore Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

Jews were expelled from England in 1290, and were not "readmitted" until 1655, so in 16th-century England there were theoretically no Jews, and no Jewish musicians. That we now know better is due in large part to the detective work of Professor Roger Prior, who caused a flurry in the musical dovecote by suggesting that many musicians, composers, and instrument makers in the Tudor and Stuart courts were of Jewish origin.

He focused on two musical dynasties which had come from Italy to settle in London at the behest of Henry VIII: the string-playing Lupos from Milan, and the wind-playing Bassanos from Venice. Evidence of their Jewishness was circumstantial but compelling, and turned on the Jewish names which sometimes crept into their documents.

So is this music exotic? As the Fretwork viol consort brilliantly demonstrated at Wigmore Hall, the answer is no, just bloody good: these composers fitted into the existing musical landscape, but did so uncommonly well. And as fathers passed the baton to sons, we could watch their chosen forms develop: while the graceful "Pavan and Galliard" by Augustine Bassano (1530-1604) stayed earthbound, the "Fantasia in Five Parts" by Hieronymus Bassano (1559-1635) took off into the ether.

Similarly, between Joseph Lupo and Thomas Lupo (born 34 years later), consonance gave way to muscular dissonance. The latter's music derived its expressive force from its formal restraint; his six-part fantasia was a shimmering sequence of luminous effects. Meanwhile, Leonora Duarte (1610-1678) is of interest as much for her sex as for her Jewishness, since women composers at that time were rare. Her music has aristocratic poise: its overlapping repetitions are delivered with Purcellian assurance.

The concert was framed by a hymn and a psalm from the Italian-Jewish liturgy, sung with touchingly devout enthusiasm by Jeremy Avis, while three intriguingly klezmerish pieces by Orlando Gough, entitled "Birds on Fire", gave the event a contemporary dimension. It's all to be heard on a new CD from the Harmonia Mundi label, under the composite title Birds on Fire.

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