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Phantasm - Ward: Consort music for five and six viols - Fanfare

01 December 2009
Barry Brenesal

John Ward was an attorney by profession in England during the first half of the 17th century, and a very successful one.  Beyond that, little is known of him, save what he wrote in the dedication of his only published score, The First Set of English Madrigals to 3, 4, 5, and 6 parts apt both for Viols and Voyces.  There, he thanked the wealthy, politically astute Sir Henry Fanshawe, "the Honorable Gentleman, and my very good Maister," in whose employ he spent many years.  It was apparently Fanshawe who defended Ward's works from critical attack, as the composer claimed they had "fed time with fulnesse, and bred many Censors, more curious than judiciall."  Ward's subject matter was serious, even severe-much against the prevailing spirit of the period-and his music eschewed for the most part the chromaticism that had lately come into fashion in Italy as an expressive device, and spread to England from there. 

The consort music on this album-twenty fantasias, and three In Nomines-wasn't published during Ward's lifetime.  Instead, it circulated in manuscript.  Like the madrigals, however, it is largely free of the wit and fancy common to much secular music of the period, including the fantasias of Gibbons.  Ward emphasizes somber moods, and canonical procedures in long, flowing, metrically regular lines.  Contributing to a sense of gradually unfolding melody is the composer's frequent recourse to postponing cadences as long as possible through contrapuntal, harmonic, and rhythmic manipulation.  When exceptions to lyrical predominance occur, as in the shorter, dance-like phrases that define the Fantasias No. 5 a5 and No. 8 a5, Ward is still likely to add lengthy, contrasting sections in his regular manner.  This hopefully doesn't create an impression of aural monotony in his music, for that's not the case.  The fantasias are fortunate to possess in abundance the usual virtues of their period and place: thematic sweetness, seemingly effortless counterpoint, and a gift for graceful rhythmic variety.

Phantasm has been warmly received in these pages repeatedly in the past.  Brian Robins noted of their release of consort material by Byrd and Mico (Fanfare 21:5), "Whereas Fretwork adopted a considered poised interpretative style, Phantasm is considerably more expressive and excitable, bowing more deeply into the strings..."  I think this expresses well a salient attribute of Phantasm's recorded performances.  The combination of the consort's attention to rhythmic detail and textural breadth (that bowing!) gives Ward's fantasias an animation that only enhances their attractiveness, without palliating their grave line. 

It's fortunate that the quality of these performances are outstanding, as there's no direct competition currently to this release that aims at presenting all the composer's consort music for five and six viols.  The Rose Consort offers a selection on cpo 999 928, along with several of Ward's "ayres" for two bass viols and organ, but I admit to finding their sound rather wiry if spirited, and not easily enjoyable as a longterm listening experience.

Chalk up another success for Phantasm, then.  They do a real service for Ward's consort music on this album, and it's well worth the price.

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