Phantasm - William Byrd - Audio Video Club of Atlanta
Phantasm, the 'early music' consort of viols heard on this revelatory recording, brings together musicians who did their earliest training in places like Edinburgh, London, New York, and Helsinki for the purpose of recreating the music of one of music's golden ages. Consisting of two Britons, Jonathan Manson and Emilia Benjamin, both tenor viols; two Finns, Markku LuolajanMikkola, bass viol, and Mikko Perkola, tenor & bass viols; and two Yanks, Wendy Gillespie, tenor & treble viols, and director Lawrence Dreyfus, treble viol, they combine a beautiful blend and harmonious style of playing with exacting scholarship to bring the music of that age to life once again.
In this instance, the subject is William Byrd (1540-1623), who was in many ways the most path breaking composer of his day. In an era when composers were undertaking the long and arduous transition from the old liturgical modes to the modern system of major and minor keys as the basis for composition and instrumental music was still in its infancy compared with the vocal (of which he was also a supreme master), Byrd's skill in counterpoint and harmony resulted in music of rare beauty. Of particular interest are his fantasias, dances, and 'In Nomine' settings for various members of the family of viols playing in an ensemble known as a 'consort'. Gut-strung and softer sounding than modern string instruments, they were bowed underhand (palm up) and typically rested on lap or tabletop; even the large bass viol did not have a peg but rested on the floor when it was played.
The present eighty-minute CD comprises all of William Byrd's completed and undisputed music for viol consort. The foundation melody, known as the cantus firmus, was based on wellknown vocal music, such as the settings of hymns or Masses, but occasionally included quotations from popular, even bawdy, songs such as the catchy dupletime hit from the refrain of 'Greensleeves' that pops up suddenly in the Fantasia à 6 (that is, in 6 Parts). Byrd's harmony is at its richest and most imaginative in the three Fantasias à 3, where it is often hard to believe there are only three instruments playing. The solemnly beautiful settings based on hymns from the Compline, the liturgical office sung at close of day, are particularly satisfying in their mood of deep peace and comfort. One of my favorite items on the program is the second Fantasia à 6, ranging in mood from solemn to rather energetic, giving all the members of Phantasm the rare opportunity to make wonderful music together.