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Phantasm - Ward: Consort music for five and six viols - Audiophile Audition

22 January 2010
Audiophile Audition
Lee Passarella
4 Stars

A contemporary of the better-known Orlando Gibbons and William Lawes, John Ward (c. 1589-1638) served as both attorney and musician for Henry Fanshawe, an official of the Exchequer. It seems in 17th-century England, the long-standing rivalry between the law and music- the families of Telemann, Schumann, and Tchaikovsky, among others, wanted their boys to pursue the law rather than waste their time on a musical career-wasn't yet in force. In any event, Ward is just now getting some of the attention traditionally lavished on "professional" musicians (ones who held court or ecclesiastical possessions) such as William Byrd.

Even by the standards of 17th-century English instrumental music, Ward's consort music is different, according to the notes to this recording written by Phantasm founder Laurence Dreyfus. Not as playful or witty as the works of Gibbons or Jenkins, Ward's pieces expand in a leisurely meandering fashion. This is especially the case with Fantasias No. 2 and 6 a6. (The "a6" and "a5" designations indicate whether the piece is for six or five viols.) They start in strict imitative counterpoint but then wander through sections that jog along in lively dance rhythms or slow down to an introspective calm.

In fact, many of the Fantasias have ties to dance forms, especially the stately pavane. But they also have very direct ties to the madrigal, of which Ward was a master. Four of the Fantasias carry the titles of Italian poems that would have been set as song and one, Fantasia No. 11 a5, bears the poem "Cor mio" in its bass part. Dreyfus points out that the instrumentalists mimic the opening line of the poem-"Cor mio, deh, non lanquire" ("My heart, pray, do not pine")-right down to pauses at the two commas. These madrigal-inspired Fantasias also indulge in the sort of wild, heart-wrenching chromaticism that are the stock in trade of composers such as Gesualdo or Monteverdi.

So within the rather strict confines imposed by the whole consort (that is, a group of instruments all of one family), Ward manages to inject variety and interest that are pleasantly unexpected. Still, at a generous 78 minutes duration, this first complete recording of Ward's Fantasias should be sampled in stages. Enjoyable as it is, the music gets to be much of a muchness if listened to all at one sitting.

Phantasm, which recorded award-winning albums for Deutsche Grammophon but now works exclusively with Linn Records, is the right group for the assignment, bringing the requisite understanding and warmth to this music. They were recorded in the chapel of Wadham College at Oxford, a venue that imparts the right mix of airy ambience and intimacy-just about what you'd hear in the halls of one of the great homes of Renaissance England. For fanciers of 17th-century English music, this album is pretty much self-recommending.
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