William Byrd: Complete Consort Music

CKD 372 1400 x 1400.jpg

Diapason d’or (July 2011)
BBC Music Magazine CD of the Month (August 2011)
Gramophone Editor’s Choice (September 2011)
Gramophone Award Nomination (2011)
Nomination for International Classical Music Award (2012)

Recording Date: 6 - 8 September 2010
Recording Location: Merton College Chapel, Oxford
Recording Engineer: Philip Hobbs
Post-Production: Julia Thomas
Design: John Haxby Photography: Marco Borggreve

William Byrd went distinctly further than the previous generation (that of the pioneer Christopher Tye) in the complexity of his writing for consort. At the start of the 1560s, access to this kind of music was still the province of the court, some theatres and aristocratic circles, and only began attracting amateurs at the beginning of the next century. That’s why Byrd assigns to the viols polyphonic hymns and In Nomines on a cantus firmus (‘mystic rhapsodies’ in Laurence Dreyfus’s striking turn of phrase), but turns his back on these rather quickly: what please him thereafter are regular sets of variations on dances or popular tunes (grounds) and the free reign of fantasies (for 3, 4, 5, or 6 viols).  In short, he writes the same types of pieces as for the keyboard, exploiting all the while the polyphonic potential of the consort.
Newly assembled on a CD filled literally to the brim, the result is thrilling. Laurence Dreyfus – viol player and musicologist of the first rank – has taken care to alternate the various styles. And his partners – the very same since the founding of Phantasm in 1994 – ensure that not a single phrase or counter-melody goes unnoticed. The score is sculpted by the tip of the bow and humanised thanks to a moderate use of vibrato. This playing avoids extremes: surely the only way to render this highly stylised repertoire. But at the same time the flame is always kept ablaze, allowing one to follow the ‘circulatory flow’ of ideas in the counterpoint. Magnificent in this regard are the variations on Browning, whose taut rhythms are magisterially sharpened at the end,  as well as the surprising – and savage – appearance of Greensleeves smack in the middle of a Fantasy a6.
The sound of the ensemble, rich and sonorous, isn’t restrained by that homogeneity of sonority which others take to be the highest value of a consort of viols. This set of complete works is a fitting match to the Consort Songs by Byrd recorded by Phantasm with Ian Partridge and Geraldine McGreevy (Simax, 1998), and reminds us of what separates a good disc of Early music from an exceptional success: that each track be a forest bustling with life.

Harold Lopparelli, Aug 2011 - read review on lynnrecords.com

Clever fellow, Byrd. Evidence of his legendary ability to survive as a Catholic and flourish at court in Elizabethan and Jacobean times seems not restricted to his sacred vocal music but pervades even his relatively little-known instrumental consort music. Only two of these works were printed during his lifetime (the Fantasias a 4 No 1 and a 6 No 3). The rest – an assortment of pieces with Latin titles that Laurence Dreyfus calls “polyphonic enhancement of devotional hymns”, In nomines that he aptly describes as “mystical consort rhapsodies”, mercurial fantasias for three to six viols, some of which quote popular ballads, intricate variations on yet other tunes of the day, and pairs of pavans and galliards – have waited more than four centuries to receive the collective care and attention that this new recording by Phantasm affords them. Building on the scholarly work of Oliver Neighbour, Laurence Dreyfus, founder-leader of Phantasm, has assembled 26 consort pieces by Byrd, preferring to contrast one with another rather than ordering them chronologically or by instrumental forces, while still providing listeners with the means to reorder them as they please. The presented order is undeniably a connoisseur’s treat but possibly challenging for the uninitiated.
The playing is quite simply divine. Phantasm have long been known for their musical precision, to which they bring to this music a warm, woody, soft-edged articulation that suits it very well. The pacing of individual pieces and sections within them seems particularly sensitively judged and Byrd’s textures sublimely balanced. Thanks, too, to Linn’s engineers, we are able to experience with sparkling clarity Byrd’s remarkable chamber music legacy.

Julie Anne Sadie, Jun 2011 - published in Gramophone

David Skudlik