Still Music of the Spheres


Nominated for the 1999 Gramophone Award - Best Early Music Recording

Martha McGaughey, tenor viol (Tracks 1-8)
Alison McGillivray, bass viol (Tracks 1, 7)

Recording Date: 16-20 August 1996
Recording Location: St Bartholomew's Church, Orford (Suffolk)
Producer: Jonathan Freeman-Attwood
Balance Engineer: Arne Akselberg
Post-Production: Jonathan Freeman-Attwood and Laurence Dreyfus
Editing: Arne Akselberg


I've yet to catch up with Phantasm's award-winning debut disc of Purcell's great viol Fantasias (warmly welcomed by Robert Maxham in Fanfare 20:4), but can immediately confirm that they have another resounding success on their hands with its successor. Indeed, about the only thing wrong with the disc is the foolish title Simax has saddled it with—Still Music of the Spheres. Still? Much of this music has a forward-moving momentum and rhythmic vitality you'd be hard put to equal anywhere. As for the spheres, well, I suppose there are places where Byrd's viol consorts seem to move on different temporal levels, but that's about as close as you'll come.

Having disposed of that gripe the rest is enthusiastic praise, not least for the adventurous idea of teaming the Byrd works with those of a virtually forgotten composer of the next generation. Richard Mico (c. 1595-1661) was descended from a French Huguenot family that emigrated to England, where he worked initially for Byrd's former patrons, the Petres, later becoming organist of the Roman Catholic chapel of Henrietta Maria, Charles l's wife. None of Mico's consort works were published in his lifetime, although Burney records that Christopher Simpson, writing six years after his death named him as one of the best composers of “Fansies.” It is 10 of these Fancys that form the principal part of a selection chosen by Phantasm, which has divided them into four short Sets, prefacing three of them with Pavans. Without exception all these pieces reveal Mico to have been a composer with a distinctly individual voice whose closely woven counterpoint is skillfully laid out for the four-part viol ensemble, frequently belying the verdict of the New Oxford History (Vol. 4) that Mico was one of a group of later consort composers who avoided the "problematical and profound." This is in fact eminently worthwhile music; and I for one am grateful to Phantasm for reviving it and playing it with such commitment.

The principal rival in the Byrd pieces is Fretwork's complete disc of the consort music on Virgin Classics (assuming it to be still available). There's a marked (and equally valid) difference of approach between the two groups. Whereas Fretwork adopted a considered and poised interpretive style, Phantasm is considerably more expressive and excitable, bowing more deeply into the strings, and bringing pieces like Browning and the second of the six-part Fantasias to truly thrilling perorations. Technically and rhythmically, too, they are absolutely superb. I did wonder whether the conclusion of the In nomine IV was possibly just a shade too hectic, but then cast my mind back to the luminescence of the opening of the same piece and forgave all. The sound captures this full, rich, and buoyant playing to perfection, and there is no doubt that the disc demands unqualified recommendation. Those wanting Byrd's complete consort music will probably already own the Fretwork. If you don't, it's worth making the point that most of the cream is here, in addition to which you will have the pleasure of making Mico's acquaintance. For the best of all worlds have both—they complement each other in the most satisfying manner.

Brian Robins, May 1998 - published in Fanfare Magazine

David Skudlik