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!
Phantasm have been making superb discs for many years now. They are recognised as one of the world's very finest viol consorts and in my view this is one of their best recordings to date.
The music is simply sublime. Byrd remains one of England's greatest composers and here we have music which shows why - it is varied, melodic, crammed with harmonic invention and utterly beguiling. The greater part of Byrd's output was choral music and he writes for viols as though they were a choir with a deep understanding of the interplay of voices and of how to create mood and atmosphere. It is marvellous stuff.
Phantasm play it magnificently. They have a depth and grace born of superb musicianship and a love both of the music and of playing together. The sound of the viols is simply lovely (beautifully recorded by Linn) and the effect of the disc is stunning from start to finish.
I am sorry to gush, but I really think this is something very special. I came slightly late to it because I wasn't sure whether I really needed more viol music or more Byrd to enlarge an already extensive collection of both. I am very glad I decided that I did - this is a jewel and very warmly recommended.
Like the William Lawes Consort Music by Phantasm which I reviewed last year this is a remarkable disc, even though music by William Byrd is more familiar and more frequently recorded. Phantasm is a terrific ensemble - you can't imagine this being played with more expertise and feel than in this recording. The presence (especially in multi channel surround) almost puts you back in the 16th century - without the danger of being on the 'wrong' side. A testimony to the SACD format, this is fine as a CD but wonderful on an SACD player and in surround. The recording itself is great, the playing magnificent, and the music of course splendid. Highly recommended - it's won lots of praise, and justifiably so - although I rather prefer Lawes.
Clean, detailed recording. Persistent vibrato, especially on treble viol, detracts from the otherwise fine performances. Enclosed notes give no details about the viols being played, or the tuning system in use. Overall this is a somewhat disappointing CD in terms of playing style and lack of technical details.