Phantasm - Ward: Consort music for five and six viols - MusicWeb International

This is something of a revelatory disc, given that Ward's posthumous reputation lies more with his madrigals - not that his status has ever been especially exalted, on disc at least. 

But these performances - outstanding in every way - do much to re-establish him as a major composer for instrumental forces and his most favoured consort music for four, five and six viols. Phantasm has chosen to record the music for five and six viols. 

Ward lived in London, working for Sir Henry Fanshawe, and his consort music was certainly well enough known in his lifetime. It exists in a number of seventeenth century editions and was subject to significant praise by a musician and writer called Thomas Mace who spoke of its ‘great eminence and monuments and patterns for sober and wise posterity.' Maybe posterity has caught up with Mace's estimation and with Ward's consort music at last. 

Most of the Fantasias are tripartite, as it were, with a three section schema. All are thoroughly well written, expressive, and accomplished. It's best to listen to a set of, say, three or four at a time, not because they are repetitious but because their moods are broadly similar in effect if not in detail. Fortunately he was something of a minor master of syncopation and this keeps things alive. He is also superbly adept at contrastive material. The remarkably agile dance patterns infiltrated into the writing give great strength and variety to the music. One thinks of the Fantasia a 3 a6 [track 2] where the unhurried ease of the outer sections is explicitly contrasted with the masque-like dance patterns of the central panel. The fluidity of the writing, as well, is a constant feature - the Fantasia No.4 a6 is a particularly fine example. And so too is the warmly textured consort writing itself, so wonderfully realised by Phantasm, who play with the utmost refinement but never inflate the Fantasias nor seek to underline expressive points that emerge the better for their noble eloquence. 

Lest one think otherwise it's not all mellifluously aerated consort textures. There are strong dissonances, ripe antiphonal statements, and a highly expressive number of shifting, drifting harmonies, of which a Fantasia No. 3 a5 [track 11] is a prime example. There are also Madrigalian cadences in the more vocalised settings such as the Fantasia No.5 a5 [track 13] and this vocalised impress translated into instrumental form, a product of his immersion in Italian vocal music, makes itself explicitly heard in the extrovert flourishes of the Fantasia No.11 a5 Cor mio.

It remains only to add that the booklet is finely produced, and provocatively engaging. The recorded sound is fittingly warm and excellent. Really this is a first class package, and a distinguished release.

MusicWeb International
01 December 2009