In these last two and a half decades, Fretwork have explored the core repertory of great English consort music, from Taverner to Purcell, and made classic recordings against which others are judged. Their series of discs for Virgin Classics included CDs devoted to William Lawes, Henry Purcell, William Byrd, Matthew Locke, John Dowland and Orlando Gibbons; while their more recent work for Harmonia Mundi USA has produced two discs of J.S.Bach — Art of Fugue and Alio Modo — which have been exuberantly praised; and discs of the earliest instrumental music (Petrucci); Sir John Tavener’s The Hidden Face; Thomas Tomkins; Alexander Agricola & Fabrice Fitch; Ludwig Senfl with Charles Daniels and two collaborations with the choir of Magdalen College, Oxford. Their recording of concert songs by William Byrd with Emma Kirkby has received particular praise.
In addition to this, Fretwork have become known as pioneers of contemporary music for viols, having commissioned over 40 new works. The list of composers is like the role call of the most prominent writers of our time: George Benjamin, Michael Nyman, Sir John Tavener, Gavin Bryars, Elvis Costello, Alexander Goehr, John Woolrich, Orlando Gough, Fabrice Fitch, Peter Sculthorpe, Sally Beamish, Tan Dun, Barry Guy, Andrew Keeling, Thea Musgrave, Simon Bainbridge, Poul Ruders, John Joubert & Duncan Druce.
The group now frequently presents programmes consisting entirely of contemporary music, though most audiences find that the creative tension of juxtaposing old and new leads to a thrilling experience.
Another major area of interest is J. S. Bach. Initially, they performed and recorded ‘The Art of Fugue’ to rapturous notices; and more recently they have arranged many of his keyboard works, including ‘The Well Tempered Clavier’ and the ‘Clavierübung’, recently released on the HMU label under the title ‘Alio Modo’. Their arrangement of the Goldberg Variations was released in November 2011.
In 2001 they created something entirely new in the consort repertory: with the aid of the Contemporary Music Network they constructed a performance involving two dancers, choreographer Ian Spink, lighting, Michael Chance and music by Gibbons, Dun, Gough, Nyman, Woolrich and Keeling. This extraordinary event was toured around the cathedrals of Britain to great wonderment and applause.
2007 saw them visiting Russia (twice), Spain, France & Ireland, with visits to the Edinburgh International Festival, the Lufthansa, Spitalfields, and Aldeburgh Festivals. They also took part in a Festival of Evensong at five Cambridge Colleges — King’s, Trinity, St. John’s, Gonville & Caius and Sidney Sussex — as part of a residency at Sidney Sussex College, which included teaching and recording a CD of Tomkins. Another recording, of Gibbons, Tomkins and Weelkes with King’s College Choir, directed by Stephen Cleobury, has recently appeared on EMI.
In 2008, they recorded two tracks on Ryuichi Sakamoto’s latest album ‘Out of Noise’. He wrote poems to accompany the tracks on the album, one of which is:
I listened to Fretwork’s In Nomine—16th C. English Music for consort of viols and Second Service & Consort Anthems.
Everyday, when I walk, before I sleep, I listen to music.
Recently, I have been listening to Gustav Leonhardt and Fretwork.
Although sometimes I do like to shuffle my library.
They now tour North America frequently and have won particular praise there for their programme of Jewish music for viols — ‘Birds on Fire’. In January 2009 they visited California & Texas with Clare Wilkinson, celebrating the 350th anniversary of Purcell’s birth.
Their recording of ‘Birds on Fire’ was Editor’s Choice in Gramophone Magazine and Julie-Anne Sadie commented: “This is demanding, wonderfully offbeat music inspired by Ashkenazi Klezmer (more cabaret than camera), which Fretwork brings off with a panache that astonishes and delights.”
In 2010, they curated a week-long concert series of concerts at the dynamic new London concert hall, Kings Place. The culmination of this week, which saw performances with Emma Kirkby, Michael Chance & Clare Wilkinson, was the world premier of Fretwork’s latest commission: ‘The World Encompassed’ by Orlando Gough, a 70-minute piece describing in musical terms Drake’s circumnavigation of the globe in 1577-80. Drake took four viol players with him on his epic journey, and Gough’s piece incorporates original 16th century music into the fabric of this new work. They took this new work with them on a ten-concert tour of North America in November of 2010.
In February 2011, BBC Radio 3’s ‘Early Music Show’ devoted a whole weekend to Fretwork, interviewing founder-member Richard Boothby, playing several tracks from their many recordings; and then broadcasting a performance of The World Encompassed recorded at the York Early Music Festival, together with an interview of the composer Orlando Gough.
Also in 2011, The National Centre for Early Music, in collaboration with the BBC, hosted a competition for young composers to compose a four-minute piece for Fretwork. They workshopped the shortlisted pieces at the NCEM in York in October, and then the winning entries were premiered in Kings Place in December 2011.
In 2012, they gave their Carnegie Hall debut in February, and in October, they premiered ‘My Days’ for The Hilliard Ensemble & Fretwork by one of today’s most exciting young composers – Nico Muhly – in Wigmore Hall.
2013 was their busiest year for a decade, and they played no fewer than ten concerts in London’s major chamber music halls: Wigmore Hall, Kings Place, Cadogan Hall & the Royal College of Music. They also celebrated the 450th anniversary of John Dowland’s birth with many performances of his Lachrimæ with the eminent lutenist, Elizabeth Kenny.
In November 2013, they went on an extensive your of North America, taking them from Texas to Mississippi, from the Mid-West to New York, and from San Diego to British Columbia.
They celebrated Dowland so much, in fact, that they couldn’t stop in 2014, devoting two months to concerts of his songs and instrumental music with one of today’s most celebrated singers, Ian Bostridge.
They visited Carnegie Hall once again in 2015, and presented the revised version of The World Encompassed, which includes a spoken narrative drawn from contemporary accounts, with celebrated actor Simon Callow at the Dartington International Summer School.