John Ward: Consort Music for Five and Six Viols

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Finalist for Gramophone 2010 Early Music Award

Emilia Benjamin
Mikko Perkola

Recording Date: 15 - 18 March 2009
Recording Location: Wadham College Chapel, Oxford
Producer and Engineer: Philip Hobbs
Post-Production: Julia Thomas, Finesplice
Cover Painting: ‘Hearing’, 1617 (oil on panel) by Jan Brueghel, the Elder (1568-1625)—Prado, Madrid, Spain / Giraudon / The Bridgeman Art Library
Photos of Phantasm: Hanya Chlala
Phantasm greatly acknowledge Northwood Music who kindly gave permission to record from george Hunter’s editions of the Five and Six-Part Consorts (Northwood Music, 1994, 1996, 1997).


Beyond the occasional madrigal, we haven’t heard much of John Ward’s music on CD. As in its own day, it has until now remained the preserve of amateurs. Ward was a Jacobean “gentleman” who published a single collection of madrigals in 1613 and left a body of consort music for four to six viols along with ayres for two bass viols, surviving in numerous 17th-century manuscripts, which Thomas Mace referred to as “very great eminence and worth”.
Phantasm, in recording the works for five and six viols, has given us what we may hope is the first of two recordings of Ward’s complete instrumental music. As an ensemble, the members of Phantasm perform with authority and exceptional musical awareness. They achieve a remarkable blend of instrumental timbres and breathe as one with their bows. The results on this disc are stunning; but, equally, the recording successfully captures individual voices, so much so that the listener feels almost part of the ensemble.
If not of the first rank, Ward’s consort music is nevertheless well crafted and genuinely engaging. Most movements are broadly in three contrasting sections, the textures now imitative, then homophonic, often antiphonal (VdGS3 and DvGS7) and on occasion rhetorical (VdGS12). His themes are cleverly syncopated more often than not; the tonality deftly shifts between major and minor. His treatment of the cantus firmus in the three In nominees is masterful. But, perhaps best of all, are the chromatic passages positioned for maximum affect (VdGS2, 3, 7, 9), which leave the listener longing for more.

Julie Anne Sadie, Nov 2009 - read review on Gramophone

Perhaps because John Ward never enjoyed royal patronage in the Tudor court, his music has not been as familiar as that of contemporaries such as Byrd and Gibbons. The Loss has been ours – this revelatory disc contains 19 inventive fantasias in five and six parts, and three, more austere, ‘In nomines’, (lines woven round a melody from a Mass by John Taverner). Ward’s craftsmanship, if relatively conservative, is striking: seamlessly woven counterpoint enlivened by a contrasting light-footed up-beat dance (No. 3 a6); a strangely leisured wandering in and out of unexpected key-areas while studiously avoiding cadencing in any of them (No. 6 a6); contrasting consorts in dialogue (No. 3 a5).
Three fantasias have titles relating to their madrigal origins, reflected in shorter-breathed phrases as if sung to texts, a striking contrast to the long-sustained polyphony elsewhere. Another (No. 6 a5) opens with the tell-tale ‘long-short-short-long’ rhythm of the chanson – in all, remarkable variety within the limited colour of five/six viols.
Phantasm’s playing is impeccable, alternately exposing motifs and coalescing in sonorities all the richer for being so perfectly in tune. Their performance is supported by surround-sound recording, re-creating the warm acoustic of an Oxford Chapel. Tudor viol music seldom sounds better than this.
Performance: 5 stars
Recording: 5 stars

George Pratt, Nov 2009 - published in BBC Music Magazine

David Skudlik