With this unique collection juxtaposing Anthems and Madrigals with Fantasies and Dances, Phantasm are firmly in their element of the 16th century English consort tradition, infusing Gibbons' passionate polyphony and rapturous harmonies with a suaveness unmatched by any other viol ensemble performing today.
The eccentric Glenn Gould counted Gibbons (rather than Bach) as his favourite composer, saying ‘his music has moved me more deeply than any other sound experience I can think of.' Listening to this disc it's no wonder.
The booklet notes are available to download here in French and German.
‘...beautifully characterized in playing of rhythmic drive, crisp articulation and transparent textures.' Daily Telegraph
‘This is very exciting playing indeed.' BBC Music
‘They play with vast assurance and verve, always attractive, always with fresh and varied textures, always beautifully balanced. This is often playing of a breathtaking virtuosity that communicates the music with irresistible vitality.' Gramophone
Laurence Dreyfus: director & treble viol
Wendy Gillespie: treble viol
Jonathan Manson: tenor viol
Markku Luolajan-Mikkola: bass viol
Susanna Pell: tenor viol
Asako Morikawa: bass viol
Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625)
Consorts for Viols
Viol players, it would seem, have little in common with the pianist Glenn Gould (1932-1982), until when one learns that the Canadian counted - not Johann Sebastian Bach but - Orlando Gibbons as his ‘favourite composer'. ‘Ever since my teenage years his music has moved me more deeply than any other sound experience I can think of,' he wrote. Above all, Gould loved the choral anthems - he admits to wearing out three copies of a recording of these - but he also recorded some of Gibbons' keyboard works (including the ‘Lord Salisbury' Pavan featured on this album), praising their ‘imperishable, distinctly English brand of conservatism'. Gould even mentions Gibbons in the same breath as Richard Wagner: ‘Given a hard day, a late night, and a sequence or two from the Liebestof, the spine tingles and the throat is seized by a catch that no other music, this side of Orlando Gibbons' anthems, can elicit with equivalent intensity and predictability.'
Strong stuff, I know, and some people might chalk it all up to the eccentricity of a genial but perverse pundit who left the real world of ‘staged' performance so as to bang on endlessly about the joys of counterpoint, of the recording studio, and of the ‘North'. To lovers of consort music, however, one can't praise Gibbons highly enough and Gould must be forgiven for his Schwärmerei, that untranslatable German term for gushing idol-worship which summons forth images of like-minded enthusiasts unable to contain their fervour.
Sadly, Gould didn't know Gibbons' consort music - little was in print at the time - but perhaps he'd have transcribed some for piano, that is, if the persistent cross-rhythms and dense part-writing didn't foil him. For while Gould didn't shirk from ‘helping out' Wagner by adding some extra voices in his transcription of Die Meistersinger, he stopped short of tackling Richard Strauss' late Metamorphosen for twenty-three strings with the excuse, ‘I haven't got that many fingers'.
Writing for no more than six viols, Gibbons pulls off not a few polyphonic stunts of his own. To begin with, there are the six-part fantasias, gems like no others, composed with a fluency of idiom and with such a concentration of ideas that they're best heard as a group. Listening to them is like peering into a kaleidoscope; one can decide to follow the fortunes of one pattern over that of another, thereby gaining new insights each time into the coherence of the whole.
Not that one knows exactly where to fix one's attention, even when the patterns appear exceeding simple. Just try counting along with the opening of Fantasia V, B 35 (track 1) to find the pulse and you'll see what I mean; the Elysian Fields of consort playing are littered with those who, even after several tries, still failed to enter on the right beat. And no wonder. Should one count the piece in two? In three? Correct answer: both and neither, which is why it's so engrossing to play this music as it was intended, without bar lines. And yet, for all the metrical conflict, Gibbons manages to produce the most glorious euphony - nothing short of miraculous, really. For the most extreme frolics of metrical confusion and energetic counterpoint, one can attempt to keep track of the cross-accents in the last minute of Fantasia IV, MB 34 (track 6). The term ‘syncopation' simply doesn't cover it.
The brevity of some imitative points, such as in the middle of Fantasia IV, MB 34 creates a dazzling array of lightning flashes, with each strike visible if never predictable in its location. Then there are those wonderful moments of Mendelssohnian lightness in every piece, capturing what Baudelaire later rightly called ‘the extraordinary sensuality which stirs in high places' (l'extraordinaire volupte qui circule dans les lieux hauts). Then there is the undeniable sincerity of Gibbons' pathos. Good examples are the openings of Fantasia VI, MB 36 and Fantasia III, MB 33 (tracks 2 and 3) which weave their tale of woe with a lyrical melancholy quite unlike William Byrd's more awestruck ruminations. (Might this be where Gibbons, a man of the established church, parts company with Byrd, the anxious Catholic?) Yet Gibbons has an obsessive side to his character, seen in his refusal to relinquish control of a motive, a passion that gives his polyphony a staying power which few contemporaries can match.
This tenacity can assume the form of mock-heroism as in the opening Fantasia I, MB 31 or of full-blooded Elizabethan muscularity at its end (track 4). In Gibbons' hands, in fact, the consort fantasia develops into a confessional genre, whose rhetoric lies in the revelation of contrasting but related states of mind. Byrd's great viol fantasias are no less deeply felt, but there is a more pronounced element of public display found in them, especially in the five- and six-part works, with their motet-like openings and calculated moves into popular tunes or dances. There is good reason why William Lawes pilfers some of Gibbons' most original ideas, like the falling thirds just after the opening of Fantasia II, MB 32 (track 5) which conclude Lawes' Fantasia I in F major a6 but which (turned upside down) provides the germ for the entire piece.
The greater austerity of Gibbons' In Nomine a5 (based on the venerable cantus firmus) shows him to no less splendid advantage. In Nomine I, MB 27 (track 7) begins with respectful references to John Taverner and Byrd, then gives way to the treatment of a pavan-like figure, which mischievously injects a sweetness alien to the genre. In Nomine II, MB 28 (track 8) on the other hand, one of Gibbons' most ambitious pieces, is saturated with an ecstatic mysticism. The enigmatic opening unleashes chains of galling tetrachords, all syncopated as if one were dragging its heavy burden across a tonal expanse. The lamenting descent meets its inverted alter ego and from then on, rising dactyls soar upward, creating an illusion of continuously ascending spirals which exhaust themselves only at the rapturous final cadence. The Pavan, MB 41 and Galliard, MB 42 (tracks 19 and 20) inhabit a different world altogether and indulge merrily in courtly pleasures and raucous high-jinks. These are pieces which invite a sympathetic stomping of the feet, even if Gibbons' examples of the dance genres are highly unorthodox. And nothing conveys better the joyful vagaries of Gibbons' invention than ‘Go From My Window', MB 40 (track 21) with its riot of divisions for the two bass viols erupting just before the conclusion.
Finally, a word about the ‘borrowed' pieces on this recording which explore the intimate links between Gibbons' consorts and their neighbouring genres. No excuses are offered for the inclusion of the familiar ‘The Silver Swan' (track 12); Gibbons himself advertised the set of madrigals (1612) to which this piece belongs as ‘apt for voices or viols'. Perhaps the instrumental rendition of sacred Anthems (tracks 17 and 18) can likewise be licensed in the way it exposes the affecting musical substance, even with the words absent. ‘O Lord, in thy wrath rebuke me not' (track 17) as it happens, begins with the same counterpoint as the opening of Fantasia V, MB 35, though to wildly contrasting effect. In the case of the keyboard pieces (tracks 9, 10 and 11) our production schedule was too advanced to heed the strongly worded advice of - not one but two - eminent Fellows of the British Academy, who warned against releasing such versions in the public domain. Stick to your own repertoire, I was told, rather than muck about in someone else's. Perhaps they were right, although the temptation to unravel the filigree strands of Gibbons' exacting part-writing proved, in the end, irresistible. Portrayed by four viols, the ‘excruciatingly impressive' dissonances in the ‘Lord Salisbury' Pavan so beloved of Gould convey a special poignancy, whilst the sparks that fly around ‘Peascod Time' (variations based on that tune as well as on the ground bass ‘The Hunt's Up') are similar enough to those given off in ‘Go From My Window' to make one dream of an entire corpus of English consort divisions crafted by the incomparable Orlando. © Laurence Dreyfus, 2005
Recorded at Chapel of Merton College, Oxford, UK, 25-27 September 2003
Produced by Jonathan Freeman-Attwood
Engineered by Arne Akselberg
Post-production by Jonathan Freeman-Attwood & Laurence Dreyfus
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