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Phantasm - William Byrd - International Record Review


01 August 2011
International Record Review
Marc Rochester

This would appear to be the first attempt to put on to a single disc every piece of music Byrd wrote for viol consort.  While there are some omissions where works exist in incomplete versions or have large question marks hanging over their authenticity, these 27 tracks, spanning some 80 minutes' playing time, provide ample evidence of a pretty remarkable musical mind, not to mention a pretty remarkable musical ensemble.

Laurence Dreyfus, who directs Phantasm from the treble viol and also provides extensive written commentaries on the music, has rather stuck his neck out in attempting to itemize all 27 pieces not just in chronological order but with specific dates for each, his thinking being that there is a very clear sense of development through the music.  I have to say, having spent time re-programming my player to hear them in the order he suggests, there does seem solid logic behind his thinking, although it presupposes that Byrd was a more organized and methodical composer than most and that no influences other than purely stylistic development affected the circumstances surrounding the music's composition.  Thankfully, though, the order of pieces on the disc itself does not begin to follow his projected time-line, and we are treated to the full range of Byrd's genius, not as a gradual transition from the foursquare simplicity of the works Dreyfus proposes date from 1560 - Semone Blando a 3, Christe qui Lux es (I and II) and the Miserere - to the much more complex and extended Fantasias a 3 (I and II) and the six-part Pavan and Gilliard, but as a series of often quite abrupt stylistic and textural leaps, the juxtaposing of the Misere and the Fantasia a 4 (I) presenting  a stylistic  shift which can only really be accounted for by the 30-year interval Dreyfus suggests separated them.

Whether the music is simple, introspective and texturally uncluttered, like the deeply devotional In nomine settings or the four-part Te lucis, or full of enchanting complexities and rhythmic twists and turns (Prelude and Goodnight Ground), Phantasm presents performances which are full of character, commitment and complete confidence.  The lovely unity of purpose about everything on this disc brings the music in its many varied guises vividly to life.  The dance movements have a wonderfully light-toed lift about them, while the prayerful items seem suitably decorous.  Along the way we encounter raw country dances - Fantasia a 6 (‘A song of two basses'), elegant madrigal-like caressing of parts (Browning a 5) and clever little musical jokes - there's a quotation from Greensleeves in the Fantasia a 6 (III).

In their first disc for Linn (consort music by John Ward, reviewed in October 2009) Phantasm and Dreyfus made much of their borrowing from string-quartet techniques in approaching their performances.  Here that is not so apparent, not least because of the continually fluctuating numbers of voices - variously three, four, five and six - but there is still a sense of richness and interaction between the players which gives everything a warmth and uniformity of sound that is most satisfying.  In places one yearns for a little more fire and angularity to project the individual lines more assertively, but, with Linn's outstanding recorded sound, this is certainly a most rewarding and deeply satisfying musical experience.


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