It's a perfect idea to collect all of William Byrd's surviving consort pieces onto one CD. The consort group Fretwork recorded something along those lines at the end of the 1990s, and it was well received at the time but is no longer available. The concentrated beauty, craftsmanship and profundity of Byrd's consort music are extraordinary, and the nicely varied arrangement of the programme on the present disc works beautifully. What is more, the 6-piece viol consort Phantasm, directed by Laurence Dreyfus, perform with delicacy, insight, commitment and an absolute unity of spirit and purpose - in short, they play as one.
Listening to the disc a few times over, I tried to note down my favourite pieces but, such is the quality of every one of these works, I was coming up with a different list each time. Still, for me it is perhaps the more extended works such as the free-style Fantasias, where the composer gives free rein to his imagination, that make the deepest impression - for example, the sequence of Fantasia a 5 and Fantasia a 6 "A song for two basses" (tracks 9 and 10), both extraordinarily rich in texture and melody. Then there are the two versions of "Sermone Blando" (8 and 25); the lovely dance movements such as Pavan and Galliard a 6 (track 22), played here with relish and joyful delicacy; and the extended variation pieces, Browning (track 2) and Prelude and Goodnight Ground (25, final track), both works of supreme melodic grace and intensity and of a rich, faultlessly woven texture.
This is music that appeals in equal measure on the sensual, emotional and intellectual levels. I already used the word "perfect" at the start, but it is hard to avoid here; for if there is a note of Byrd's music that is dull, routine or uninspired, or a note of Phantasm's playing that is less than perfect, I have yet to hear it. The booklet is excellent, enhanced by Laurence Dreyfus' own detailed and helpful notes; and Linn's recorded sound, too, is wonderful. But never mind the quality - it's the quantity that counts here, stretching the compact disc format to about one second short of its maximum to give us 79' 59" of music. Sheer bliss, then, and plenty of it!