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Phantasm - Ward: Fantasies & Verse Anthems - MusicWeb International

15 January 2015
MusicWeb International
Gary Higginson

It is gradually becoming clear that John Ward was one of the finest composers of the period between Byrd and Purcell. His flame has only slowly started to glow, however. It was in 1981 that Anthony Rooley's Consort of Musicke recorded Ward's so-called First book of Madrigals of 1613 along with four viol fantasias then they recorded some again and some other madrigals in manuscript for Hyperion in 1983. Things went quiet until 2009 when Phantasm recorded Ward's entire output for five and six part viols also on Linn.

This new disc completes the set with six ‘Oxford' Fantasias in four parts. Making up the main bulk time-wise are the verse anthems, six in all, accompanied by viol consort. These are likely to be unknown even to aficionados of Jacobean church music. I doubt that any cathedral choir would have any of these in their repertoires; indeed some have not yet have been published. Two have had to be reconstructed by Ian Payne. Hearing them made me almost convinced that they are finer and certainly more developed pieces than those by Orlando Gibbons. It was Payne incidentally who also edited the complete works of John Ward published by Corda Music.

The eloquent and detailed booklet notes by Laurence Dreyfus, director and treble viol player in Phantasm, remarks that "these verse anthems and viol fantasies were penned by a young ‘gentleman' composer attached to the household of a highly cultivated Italianophile, Sir Henry Fanshaw." Fanshaw was an inspiration to Henry Stuart, Prince of Wales who died so tragically young in 1612. Hence the text found in This joyful, happy holy day "Our happiness and joy is much increas'd / By the creation of our prince, /of public peace and joy". Ward had sung at Canterbury Cathedral but by 1607 he had been taken up the Fanshaw family and never looked back. The anthem probably dates from the following year.

In the verse anthem the main thrust of the text is taken by the soloists with the choir commenting at the end of a section and repeating the last words of the solo. Knowing some of Ward's madrigals quite well, as I do, I was pleasantly surprised by the madrigalian style adopted for the verse anthems and less surprisingly for the viol pieces. By that I mean, a sure sense of polyphony and word-painting. In his notes, Dreyfus goes into some considerable detail about one of the reconstructed anthems Praise the Lord, O my soul. In this case Ward's often quite subtle word-painting is looked at in depth and is utterly revealing in the way the music illustrates the text from Psalm 104. It's also very helpful that the Choir of Magdalen College, Oxford have such superb diction, especially the boys, in the hands of Daniel Hyde. Hyde treats these pieces with calm and poise although the full texts are clearly supplied.

Ward was probably a rather sober Protestant. We have for example Down caitiff, wretch, fall low and prostrate lie and the second part of this anthem Prayer is an endless chain of purest love. There is also the anthem How long wilt thou forget me O Lord, for ever, taken from the rather gloomy Psalm 13. The Fantasias also tend toward the serious. Let God Arise and This is a joyful, happy holy day and the exuberant Fantasia 6 demonstrate the opposite side of his character.

The Fantasias are a midway house between Byrd and Matthew Locke. As in the madrigals they take a ‘point', develop it, imitate it and then move on to another ‘point' which will be nicely contrasted, mostly polyphonic but with juxtaposed homophonic sections. In addition we may be treated to some exploratory harmonies. As Phantasm play with such an understanding of musical direction ones attention never wavers, helped also by the fact that none last much longer than three minutes. The group consists of four players but are joined by an extra tenor and bass viol for the anthems. This proves useful for adding depth to the harmony.

This is somewhat rarefied repertoire but there is no reason to assume that it should always be so. Indeed Praise the Lord, O my soul should be taken up by college and cathedral choirs without delay.

The recordings, and as I've implied the performances, are incisive and invite you into the music without fuss and without getting in the way.    
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