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Fanfare Magazine: 39:6 (07-08/2016) 
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Reviewer: Barry Brenesal


This album was recorded in 2011, but apparently only now released, at least in the United States. The performing group’s name, Sit Fast, uses “fast” in the older sense of the word, as “firm”; so to be “stuck fast” meant to be firmly held, and unable to move. It follows that Sit Fast means to sit you down firmly, and remain attentive to what you hear. This concept doesn’t originate with the group, but actually derives from the title of a fantasia-style work by Christopher Tye.

Here the group’s four members, plus three friends who join as required (coming together in the In Nomine II for Seven Parts), perform all of Purcell’s fantasias—the three in three parts, the nine in four parts, the Fantasia upon one note, and the pair of In Nomines. They also include the unfinished Fantasia XIII, which Hespèrion XX under Jordi Savall, for example, does not (Alia Vox 9859). It’s a minor point, but worth noting if, over the years, you’ve ever read through the score and wondered where Purcell might have taken it. Les Voix Humaines (ATMA Classique 2591) is the only ensemble I’ve heard on record that actually includes not just the piece, but a presumed completion by Matthias Maute, extending it to just over three minutes. Sit Fast’s version comes to a final cadence at slightly over one. Some enterprising viol consort might consider issuing several widely differing realizations of this particular work.

But I digress. Sit Fast’s renditions of all Purcell’s pieces tend, like those of Savall, to be on the slow side—in fact, even slower than Savall, whom I regarded as the most lyrical of those versions I’d heard when I reviewed it back in 2008. This consort’s timings are almost entirely slower by as much as more than a minute for some of these relatively short works, but given their density of movement, this doesn’t bring the fantasias crawling to a halt. It helps that Sit Fast makes rather more of many of the tempo changes indicated in the scores; so while Savall slows at the 25th bar (Mandozzi edition) of the Fantasia upon one note, Sit Fast goes still further, with the sudden, almost halting chords after the preceding polyphony producing a rare effect—which is repeated when they take the appearance of eighth-note figures in the 30th bar as an indication to suddenly speed up, again. Savall, instead, maintains the pace. Or again: Savall’s basic tempo is quicker in the Fantasia VIII, so that the direction to play more briskly in the 29th bar (Nagel edition) passes for little, as the change is nominal. Not so with Sit Fast, who perform at a more relaxed pace, then shift gears suddenly.

There are many competing versions that supply excellent value. Phantasm (Simax 1124), whose recording Robert Maxham so enjoyed in Fanfare 20:4, takes similar or slightly faster tempos than Savall, with greater accenting and distinction between the parts. It is a distinguished release. Fretwork (Harmonia Mundi 907502) is faster still, but while I find their dark, smooth tone attractive, there’s little variation in attack throughout the selections. Les Voix Humaines, mentioned above, is very lively in these works, too much so to my tastes, but then I prefer to savor Purcell’s intricate imitative points. Others who don’t might well consider their recording.

In short, you really can’t go wrong with any of the versions of the Purcell fantasias mentioned above. But with Sit Fast now the slowest I’ve heard, yet willing to vary the pace dramatically through the music’s cue, it takes a place in my first rank. Their phrasing is a bit austere, but this consort allows the counterpoint to unfold at a leisurely pace that never bogs down; and the engineering is suitably close and dry, allowing the fine thread of their playing full exposure.


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