Fretwork is an English consort of viols, now entering its third decade of activity, with more than two dozen recordings released. Triangle listeners were lucky to be able to hear this august ensemble in the intimate setting of the sanctuary of Judea Reform Congregation in Durham, where the five musicians were presented by TEMPO — Triangle Early Music Presenting Organization, in association with other sponsors (including the Carolina Center for Jewish Studies and the Department of Music at UNC) in a program focusing on the Crypto-Jewish composers active in Tudor and Jacobean England, the theme of the group’s most recent CD.

Crypto-Jews were Jews whose families had their origins in Iberia, where in 1492 the Spanish monarchy expelled the Jews, and in 1497 the Portuguese monarchy forcibly converted the Jews residing there. Many Jews presented a Catholic face to the public and continued practicing Judaism in the home (thus crypto, or “hidden” Jews). The anti-Semitic actions of the Iberian monarchies produced a diaspora to the Mediterranean, to European countries more hospitable to Jews, and to the New World, including a substantial number of emigrants who brought Spanish musical practices to Italy, particularly the viola da gamba. By the middle of the sixteenth century, several Jewish musical families made their way to England, where their talents were welcomed, though Jews were officially still banned.

Fretwork (Wendy Gillespie, Susanna Pell, Richard Tunnicliffe, Richard Boothby, and Richard Campbell) opened this unusual program with works by Augustine and Hieronymus Bassano and Joseph and Thomas Lupo, the latter works being fantasias which could also be sung as madrigals. The lone goyish work on the program was the Fantasia “with and without rests” by Philip van Wilder, cunningly constructed so as to work whether or not you play the rests marked. The two symphonies by Leonora Duarte of Antwerp were quite attractive, particularly the second, which in its high spirits recalled Thomas Morley. A set of anonymous dances, gravely beautiful, closed the first half.

The second half brought more Thomas Lupo, with more lightly-scored works in three parts and a not-quite-successful piece for treble viol accompanied by lyra-viol (a chordal style of playing). Salomone Rossi was represented by two works, neither entirely satisfactory. The first, an instrumental rendition of a choral work, “Hashkivenu,” was simply too slow to sparkle, and it would have been the better of valor to refrain from essaying his Ruggiero, certainly intended for violins and continuo, not for treble viols. The program closed with Birds on Fire, an attractive work in a klezmeric idiom by Orlando Gough, effectively written for the viols, and captivatingly played.

All in all, a very pleasant program in a space which seemed ideally suited to the quiet inflections of the viols.